Tap Japanese functional food innovation, urges Euromonitor

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Functional foods, Nutrition, Euromonitor

Functional foods from Japan are a source of inspiration for large
companies building the market in Europe, but there are some caveats
over the kinds of products consumers are likely to accept and the
need for scientific backing.

The European functional foods market is valued by Euromonitor International at $7.41bn, with growth of 11 per cent anticipated by 2011. But the Japanese market is streets ahead, valued at $8.4bn (Y905bn) for functional foods and $8.1bn (Y959bn) for functional drinks. Euromonitor's global manager for health and wellness, Christiana Benkouider, told NutraIngredients.com that Japan's leading position is largely down to the FOSHU ('food with specified health uses') regulation in 1991, which created a specific category. Euromonitor's figures include products not officially recognised as FOSHU however, based on the analyst's definition of functional foods as those that are "actively enhanced".​ The legislation over there is "more permissive"​ than in Europe where, by contrast, it is difficult to bring innovation into the market quickly. "Japanese consumers always want new products and get bored quickly,"​ said Benkouider. "Products have a short lifecycle, and there is always a new craze."​ As for Europe, regulation plays a massive role in holding back the marketplace - and Benkouider said she does not know how much will change with the new health and nutrition regulations. But she expects it will be the big manufacturers who will benefit most, as they will be able to put more science behind the products. Smaller companies, on the other hand, tend to be innovative but will find it more difficult to provide the scientific back-up. Even with the larger companies there is a certain hesitancy in Europe, since products need a lot of marketing support. While they may do well to look to Japan as a source of inspiration, they should be aware that the more "outlandish"​ products may well me unacceptable, said Benkouider. What is more, although there is an allowance for disease risk reduction claims under the new health claims regulation (such as cholesterol-lowering, for instance), the analysts believe such claims create suspicion amongst consumers that foods are posing as medicines. Such claims may not be worth the marketing. Euromonitor analyst Simone Baroke, who is presenting a talk on Japanese functional foods trends at the International Food Design Summit in Munich today, said that a more successful strategy could be "focusing on and enhancing the inherently healthy properties of well known foods".​ Baroke gave some examples of product categories inspired by Japan that could do well in Europe. These include black foods - such as black soy beans, black rice and black sesame biscuit - which address certain health concerns such as cholesterol and weight management. "They also have a novelty value as very few European foods are black in colour, plus products such as black rice and black sesame biscuits are good tasting, appealing to consumers on health and taste grounds,"​ said Baroke. Euromonitor also predicts that jelly drinks, particularly those enhanced with amino acids, could do well in Europe if positioned as "performance enhancing"​ and aimed at young men. However the functional foods category took a blow to its reputation last week, when Dutch scientists wrote in the British Medical Journal​ that they need systematic monitoring because not enough is known about their long-term safety and effectiveness. Their comments have received considerable attention in the mainstream consumers press.

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