Special Edition: Functional Foods

What are functional foods, and what do consumers really think about them?

By Nathan Gray contact

- Last updated on GMT

What are functional foods, and what do consumers really think about them?

Related tags: Functional foods, Nutrition

Functional foods and drinks are becoming more widely accepted as a part of every day life – but how do we actually define the category, what drives consumer engagement, and where is the next big growth coming from?

With the total European market for fortified and functional foods estimated to be worth almost €38 billion in 2016, according to Euromonitor data, functional foods and drinks are big business.

While growth forecasts for functional foods in developed markets is relatively low, Euromonitor expects to see rapid year-on-year growth in emerging markets as consumers increasingly accept products with functional ingredients such as probiotics, omegas, vitamins and minerals, “as a means of minimising any nutritional gaps in their daily diets or simply to boost their wellbeing.”

Indeed, data from Euromonitor shows that while the year-on-year growth for developed markets in Western Europe has been almost flat – witnessing an average yearly growth of less than 1% between 2011 and 2016 – rapidly growing markets in Eastern Europe have embraced the trend – with average year-on-year growth of 6.5% for the same five-year period.

“This shows the movement towards artificially fortified foods and beverages and those reduced in salt, sugar and fat to a more naturally functional offering,”​ said Euromonitor health and wellness analyst, Maria Mascaraque.

But what is a functional food?

Many in the industry consider a functional food or drink product to be one that provides an ‘added benefit’, that is above and beyond the benefit the normal food or formulation would offer. This isea of ‘added functionality’ generally means that functional foods are seen to be more processed, and artificial than ‘whole foods’.

However, there is an increasing desire from consumers, and willingness from industry, for foods with natural functionality​.

According to a recent communication in Current Opinion in Food Science​, there is no consensus definition for the term ‘functional food’ – “which is considered by many as a marketing terminology.”

However, it notes several ‘working definitions’, including a 2013 consensus from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics which recognised that although all foods provide some level of physiological function, the term functional foods​ could be defined as “whole foods along with fortified, enriched, or enhanced foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis at effective levels based on significant standards of evidence.”

According to this definition, functional foods could include the inherently healthful components in fruits and vegetables (natural products); whole grains and fibre in certain breads and cereals and calcium in milk (altered products); vitamin D-fortified milk and vitamin C fortified fruit juices (fortified products); margarine with plant sterol ester, prebiotics, probiotics (enriched products); and eggs with increased omega-3 produced by altering chicken feed (enhanced commodities).

Consumer challenges

It is forecast that functional foods and drinks will gain further prominence in the minds and hearts of consumers – and become part of daily diet of an average consumer – which brings with it new challenges, warn researchers.

A recent review published in Appetite​ suggested that the global market for functional foods and beverages could worth $192 billion by 2020.

“Although growing at good pace, development of these foods products can be very challenging for the food manufacturers, as they need to ensure, that these products and ideas meet the expectations of the consumers,”​ wrote the research team – led by Navdeep Kaur from the Punjabi University Regional Centre for IT & Management.

So what do consumers actually understand, and expect, from functional foods?

In recent years, both market and academic research have reported the rising awareness and interest of consumers in health and functional foods.

According to Kaur and colleagues, several factors can be said to have influenced the trends, including a growing recognition of the role of food in the preservation of health, the increase in life expectancy, and increasing costs of health care because of growing disease burdens from high blood pressure, cholesterol, high blood glucose, obesity – and the increased awareness of the risk of heart diseases and cancer.

Kaur and colleagues collated the many influences of consumer behaviour regarding functional foods. (Credit: Appetite; Kaur, et al)

“As has been established by previous researches, in order to achieve consumer acceptance in long run, the marketers have to focus on studying the consumer expectations, judicious product development, efficient distribution and effective communication,”​ they said – adding that while there has been a raft of research looking at consumer understanding and behaviours in developed markets like the USA and Western Europe, there is very little understanding of functional foods and consumer behaviour and market drivers in emerging markets.

“It has been observed that certain characteristics such as consumer's socio-demographic background, personal motivation, health consciousness and attitude towards functional foods play an important role in their acceptance,”​ wrote Kaur et al.

The team said future research focusing on specific functional foods will help improve industry's understanding of the market for value-added functional foods products, and identifying appropriate strategies for product development and marketing and also in the development of programmes promoting healthy nutrition.

“Also, more cross-cultural research is needed to understand the consumer's perceptions towards functional food products around the world,”​ the authors said – noting that while the dimensions behind functional food attitudes can be similar across nations, “the contents of the dimensions may load differently depending on the culture.”

Source: Appetite
Volume 112, doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2017.01.033
“Deciphering the consumer behaviour facets of functional foods: A literature review”
Authors: Navdeep Kaur, et al

Related topics: Markets and Trends, Functional foods

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