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Sceptical of health? Consumer perceptions of the food-pharma borderline

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

BernardaSv / GettyImages
BernardaSv / GettyImages

Related tags Nutrition

Many German consumers are sceptical of the health benefit of nutritional products that fall in the borderline area between food and pharmaceuticals, new research suggests.

The study, published in PharmaNutrition, ​explored consumer perceptions of ‘health-related borderline products’ between food and pharmaceuticals, such as nutraceuticals or functional foods – finding that while such products represent an interesting area of innovation for industry, consumers do not see them as an ‘easy way to stay healthy’.

“Our study indicates that consumers in Germany, especially young and highly educated women, seem to be uncertain about the health benefits of health-related borderline products​,” noted the team – led by Sukhada Khedkar from the University of Bonn, Germany.

The team investigated consumer perception of seven ‘health-related borderline products’ – probiotic yoghurt, phytosterol margarine, vitamin juice, garlic tablets, omega-3 eggs, vitamin C tablets, and Echinacea tea – using an online survey of 104 consumers in Germany.

“They perceived these products to be generally safe to consume. However, consumption of such products was not perceived to be an easy method of staying healthy,” ​said the team. “Product appearance also seemed to influence consumers’ perception of health-related borderline products as food or pharmaceuticals.”

According to Khedkar and colleagues consumer perception of ‘innovative products’ in the functional food and nutraceutical area that often represents the ‘boarderline’ between the food and pharmaceutical worlds, are often unpredictable.

“This scepticism could be because European consumers’ acceptance of functional foods is generally less unconditional, and with more concerns and reservations. In addition, lack of a positive response to health-related borderline products could be related to the young age of the participants,”​ said the team.

In general, they noted that a positive perception, and consumption, of products like supplements and functional foods has been associated with women, and middle age and elderly consumers.

“Older consumers might react favourably to health-related borderline products with respect to prevention of lifestyle diseases as they are more likely to be diagnosed with health issues,”​ they added. “At large, a user of health-related borderline products like functional foods is identified as being female, well-educated, higher income class and older than 55.”

Pills are more medical

The team also reported that consumers perceived vitamin C and garlic tablets as rather pharmaceutical – which could suggest that product appearance does seem to affect consumer perception towards health-related borderline products.

“This is interesting, since vitamin C and garlic tablets, even though available in pill format, are not pharmaceuticals,”​ wrote the authors – adding that aside from nutritional benefits, attributes like appearance, texture, colour also affect consumer acceptance.

“Appearance of health-related borderline products as foods may dilute their functionality/efficacy,”​ they added.

The German authors suggested that the ambiguity of consumer perceptions towards these borderline products “underscores the importance of collaborations among policymakers, companies and consumer organisations.”

“Additionally, it seems pivotal that such “fuzzy” product concepts gain attention from public-health and marketing perspectives,”​ they said.

Standard regulation?

Furthermore, they noted that although the nutrition and health claims that are used by such functional foods are regulated through the Health Claims Regulation (EC) No. 1924/2006, the products themselves are not yet subject to a universally standardized regulation.

 “We propose that there is need for a universally accepted definition of the concept of health-related borderline products.”

“Besides, standardised categorisation criteria to guide regulation of health-related borderline products are needed. The criteria for categorization could be based on several factors such as distribution channel, dosage, appearance, replaceability of the product by a conventional food or pharmaceutical, need for scientific substantiation, health effect etc.”

Source: PharmaNutrition
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.phanu.2017.10.002
“Food or pharmaceutical? Consumers perception of health-related borderline products”
Authors: Sukhada Khedkar, et al

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