Delayed reactions and industry in-jokes: The psychology of functional foods

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

"Is this the way I should be thinking about my food?” consumer behaviour and health researcher asks
"Is this the way I should be thinking about my food?” consumer behaviour and health researcher asks

Related tags Functional food Nutrition functional beverage beverage

According to Euromonitor International, fortified or functional food and drink sales jumped by 25% between 2008 and 2013 to reach $267.6bn (€249bn). But what does this industry term really mean to consumers anyway and what are the motivators behind such purchases?

Combined sports and energy drink sales were expected to grow by nearly 30% reaching $64.1bn in 2019 – representing a substantial chunk of that functional food pie.

Perhaps it is no coincidence then that the ‘function’ in question for these drinks could be felt immediately. Drink this caffeinated product and you will feel more awake – a simple message to send and receive.

Meanwhile, try marketing food and supplements for things like cognitive health and the science gets harder to sell. Consume this product and in 15 years’ time you may be better off for it – but then who knows, maybe it’s just because you do the crossword.

So when it comes to functional food, do their ‘functions’ have to be immediate?

Professor Monique Raats, director of the University of Surrey’s food, consumer behaviour and health research centre, told us: “There are both long and short term claims made about products. It’s about the nature of the benefits people are seeking and there are quite some substances where probably the nature of the benefit people are thinking to gain from it are the short-term ones.”

Now or never

Speaking with NutraIngredient last year, Euromonitor analyst Diana Cowland said vision and cognitive health were key public health concerns with ageing populations and a rise in dementia and Alzheimer's.

“But the problem with these health trends is it’s very difficult to see the perceived benefits. The consumer really struggles with that tangible efficacy that is so important for a functional food or drink product.”

Cardiovascular benefits like a reduction in cholesterol might be achieved in a month, a timeline still in the short term for most.

Butter fat heart

She said this attraction had been reflected in sales. Products pushing cardiovascular health saw global says of $7bn (€6.5bn) in 2013, while brain health saw just half a million (€0.46m).

Professor Raats said this could also come down to which claims were allowed under EU food regulation, suggesting perhaps short term health benefits were easier to prove than long term.

She said greater research was also needed on what consumers understood by both these short- and long- term health claims.

Is functional food definition defunct?

Professor Raats said the term functional food did not necessarily carry weight with all consumers.

“Functional food is almost a technical term that we in the food community have coined and not one that most people would even consider as a term.”

Asked if consumers might argue all food had a function, she agreed that this was an odd term and questioned whether this might have sprung from certain health benefits being pushed according to the claims available in order to secure sales.

Questions could also be raised about what such messages – pushing specific nutrients of functional food and not highlighting the innate benefits of wholefoods – meant for public health and our food culture.  


“In many cases you could question how helpful [some of these statements are] to me as a consumer? And what am I to make of them and is this the way I should be thinking about my food?”

In her research on the perception of disease risk reduction claims, one aspect she examined was the impact of health claims on public health.  

There had been little research conducted on what it might mean if consumers were pushed by health claims towards diets richer in X, Y and Z.

Eating functions not foods

On “eating in functional terms”​, she asked: “Is everything in all your choices always something you would articulate as: ‘Oh I’m doing this because I want to stay alert’?”

This differed across populations though, with some thinking about foods in these health terms. This was documented by certain foods like cholesterol-lowering shots only consumed for their health benefit.

Meanwhile, Vhari Russell, analyst for Food Marketing Expert, told us she saw a shift towards “provenance and honesty”​ from brands.  

“Maybe we need to look back to our core products [like milk] and promote the health benefits of what we have already and communicate those to the consumer.”

Raats’ research suggested that people would ‘upgrade’ health claims based on generally assumed health knowledge. For example, a nutrition claim on calcium content might be upgraded in the mind of the consumer to mean this product could help fight bone conditions. This was less likely with ingredients relatively unknown to the consumer.  

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