Nutraceuticals and regulation: 'Please sir, can we have some more', say consumers

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

The government should subsidise health foods, UK consumers say. © iStock.com / marilyna
The government should subsidise health foods, UK consumers say. © iStock.com / marilyna

Related tags Nutrition Food Snack functional beverage beverage

Consumers want more regulation on food and further limits on the use of additives and preservatives, but are keen to embrace functional products and nutraceuticals, according to extensive research carried out by the UK’s Food Safety Agency (FSA).

How do consumers see the future of food? The FSA is using a public dialogue to find out, and has just published the findings from its initial polling, focus groups and workshops.

Not surprising is the public’s desire to see more regulation and further restrictions on certain ingredients: they want the government to “make it harder”​ to be unhealthy, through taxes and strict regulation. If not, consumers can foresee a time when a “two-tier”​ food society emerges – where healthy and less processed foods are increasingly a luxury, and people who are more financially pressured rely more on convenience foods.

Convenience, in fact, could become a headache for food firms. Consumers may well crave it – from ready meals and online shopping to lunch on the go – but they’re worried that if brands continue to market convenience the public will soon “lose touch”​ with what they eat.

Paradoxically, they’re pretty keen on the idea of using functional foods and nutraceuticals to help maintain a healthy diet. The global market for these foods is expected to hit €35bn​ within five years and UK consumers are hopeful of further innovation.

What consumers want

This was a topic that participants were “highly engaged by”,​ the authors noted. “Participants recognised a need for food options that were both healthy and convenient, and felt that nutraceuticals could help busy people maintain a nutrient-rich diet,”​ they added.

Some consumers, for example, were supportive of the idea they could “get their five a day with minimal effort”​, with time-stressed parents using nutraceuticals to help feed their children in a healthy way.

Though there were some concerns about the “unnaturalness”​ of synthetic food production, most viewed developments in this area positively – so long as development supplemented not substituted healthy diets.

In other words, consumers don’t want to see manufacturers pushing these synthetic health shots because there are no vitamins left in every other affordable food on offer. In fact, should the market for nutraceuticals expand, the government should step in and subsidise “healthy, whole foods”.

Placing one's trust

Indeed, the researchers asked for both “ideal world”​ and “worst case”​ scenarios. There was a fair amount of mistrust in the food industry at large: the influence hierarchy – food industry; government; the public – was turned on its head in relation to trust.

However, the sector is doing quite a bit right, too. Increased clarity in labelling around allergens, fat, salt, sugar and additives was “widely praised”,​ offering consumers confidence to make “empowered choices about their food – and reassure them that the food industry was being encouraged to act in consumers’ interest”​.

There was interest, for instance, in the potential for information provided on labelling to be expanded to include wider food issues, such as the complexity of supply chains involved and the global environmental impacts of food production.

“The food supply chain is increasingly complex and already under pressure from a growing world population,”​ said FSA director of policy Steve Wearne. “It’s the FSA’s role to understand how this affects the interests of consumers and engage with people about how the food system should be shaped for the future.”​ 

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