Functional food is no COVID fad: ‘Consumers have fundamentally changed their attitudes to health and wellness’

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Demand for functional foods looks set to be a long-term trend, experts suggest at the FoodNavigator 2021 Digital Summit: Positive Nutrition / Pic: GettyImages-fizkes
Demand for functional foods looks set to be a long-term trend, experts suggest at the FoodNavigator 2021 Digital Summit: Positive Nutrition / Pic: GettyImages-fizkes

Related tags positive nutrition Healthy ageing Immunity stress Sleep functional beverage beverage

COVID-19 has boosted interest in functional foods that deliver wellbeing benefits like immunity and stress management. But while the pandemic may have accelerated this trend, functional foods are no flash in the pan, experts insisted at FoodNavigator’s Positive Nutrition Digital Summit yesterday.

It won’t come as news that 2020 was a rough year for consumers. And, while vaccine rollouts may offer a ray of hope, so far 2021 hasn’t been all that much better.

The global coronavirus pandemic has had a dramatic impact on how people view diet, health and wellbeing. Fear of disease and concerns over mental wellbeing have risen sharply. Carole Bingley, Technical Specialist at Reading Scientific Services, told the audience at FoodNavigator’s Positive Nutrition Digital Summit that the past year has also seen an up-tick in other health-related concerns.

Citing a Eurominotor International study that asked consumers to rate different aspects of health, Bingley noted: “Mental wellbeing came top across all the age groups as being the most important aspect associated with health. For older age groups, absence of disease scored very highly... Getting enough sleep came third or fourth across the different groups. Then we had other aspects - such as feeling good, emotional wellbeing, maintenance of a healthy weight - which also appeared in the top five.”

Mike Hughes, Insight Director at FMCG Gurus, said that the research provider’s own survey findings bore out similar conclusions. Importantly, he stressed, this seems to be a long-term shift. “A year into the pandemic, concerns about health issues are on the rise, not decline. This shows consumers have fundamentally changed their attitudes to health and wellness as a result of the virus.”

A long-term shift in attitudes to health

Concerns over wellness are not just being driven by coronavirus, he continued. “Pessimism towards health and wellness isn’t driven purely by COVID-19… 44% of global consumers experienced health problems in the last 12 months, 30% suffer from an allergy or intolerance, are 6% heavy users of alcohol and 23% say their diets ‘outright unhealthy’.”

FMCG Gurus’ consumer research shows that while consumers are making efforts to improve their diet, they are inhibited by what they see as barriers to healthier lifestyles.

“Consumers were marginally more likely to say their health had deteriorated in the last couple of years than improved. This is despite consumers saying they are making more proactive attempts than ever before to improve health, showing that ultimately plans to improve diet and lifestyle aren’t working for consumers. This is something that in the long term will drive demand for more innovative and effective solutions.”

Hughes highlighted a number of factors influencing health outcomes, from an ageing society, to a diet high in processed foods and sugar, perceived time scarcity, stress and poor financial wellbeing – a issue likely to be more significant because it is ‘particularly problematic in a recessionary environment’.

“Consumers believe there are many barriers to a healthy lifestyle… dietary plans often aren’t working. Better-for-you dietary plans can often be associated with compromise and sacrifice and this is something consumers are unwilling to accept,”​ Hughes said pointing to taste, cost and convenience as the biggest barriers.

GettyImages-Simonapilolia health junk taste healthy
FMCG Gurus says consumers unwilling to sacrifice taste for health / Pic: GettyImages-Simonapilolia

Customisation for healthy ageing

This situation presents food and beverage brands with a powerful innovation opportunity, Hughes and Bingley agreed.

“Consumers want immediate solutions but don’t feel current nutritional solutions offer this. Consumers can often feel that products are a bit too generic,”​ Hughes suggested.

He believes that a customised approach could well gain traction. “We know around 6 in 10 consumers say they are interested in food and drink products that are customised to meet their individual needs. Not all these consumers are currently seeking out these products – or believe these products are available – so it shows there is a real opportunity to innovate within the health and wellness market.”

FMCG Gurus data shows 42% of consumers say they have adopted a long-term approach to health over the last couple of years. This is important because customised products are associated with healthy ageing, a topic that is becoming a bigger concern in an ageing world.

As was highlighted on Day One of the Positive Nutrition Summit, when we focused on healthy ageing, for the first time in history across the globe people aged over 65 now outnumber children under five. In Europe, the population of over 65s is expected to reach almost 150 million by 2050. The opportunity is significant.

GettyImages-Toa55 old age healthy ageing elderly
An ageing population is a big innovation opportunity: could customisation be the answer? / Pic: GettyImages-Toa55

Immunity is a crucial concern

Immunity support has been top of mind for many people over the past year. “Consumers increasingly questioned their vulnerability to disease and illness resulting in consumers becoming less satisfied with their immune health,”​ Hughes noted.

This has prompted people to increase their intake of vitamins and supplements that support immunity. They also report eating more foods to boost immune health, Bingley revealed.

“This area has a lot of focus and we are seeing a lot of products coming to the market. Its estimated that immunity boosting food market will be worth more than $1trn by 2023.”

One benefit of targeting this need-state is a ‘very well defined’ EFSA health claim associated with the use of certain vitamins and minerals. Meet the EFSA specified level of vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, Folate, Copper, Iron, Selenium or Zinc in your formulation and you can make the on pack claim ‘contributes to the normal functioning of the immune system’.

“A lot of products are using this as a basis to enable the claim and then building on top of that… Companies are using other ingredients such as botanicals, particularly ginger and turmeric, or ingredients such as probiotics and protein to create a story around the product and allow it to stand out on shelf,”​ Bingley noted.

GettyImages-sirawit99 consumer shopping shop covid-19
Immunity is high on the agenda in a post-COVID world / Pic: GettyImages-sirawit99

Up-and-coming immunity ingredients

  • Vitamin D continues to draw attention, thanks to the suggestion it could help combat COIVD
  • Beta glucans from yeast or algal sources
  • Mushrooms used in traditional medicine
  • Elderberry extract

Stress, relaxation and sleep

Changing attitudes towards sleep and mental wellbeing – likely linked to growing concern over disease – all tie into the idea that consumers are struggling to manage their stress.

“Over the past year, we’ve had a lot of stressful times. The worries of the pandemic, the anxiety associated with the wellbeing of ourselves and loved ones, maybe concerns about job security and financial worries. It’s been a pretty tough year for everyone,”​ Bingley reflected.

Looking at data from the Office of National Statistics in the UK, Bingley said she was ‘surprised’ that ‘only’ one-third of British adults reported that the pandemic had impacted their wellbeing. “I was surprised it was as low as that.”

“The highest levels of stress were seen in the 65+ age group, which is generally the age group where we see lowest levels of stress. This is probably linked to the fact that this age group was most at risk.”

The percentage of people reporting worry related sleep loss has increased since the beginning of the pandemic, rising from 15.7% prior to the onset of COVID to 24.7% after, according to the Centre for Population Change at the University of Southampton.

“Sleep support is heavily dominated by tea products and hot drinks,”​ Bingley revealed, noting “the number of launches is steadily increasing in this area.”

GettyImages-Sviatlana Barchan sleep relaxation stress
Demand is growing for products that help people unwind / Pic: GettyImages-Sviatlana Barchan

Ingredients to de-stress 

  • Adaptogens like ashwagandha, holy basil, ginseng
  • CBD
  • Pre and probiotics

… and sleep

  • Botanicals like camomile and lavender
  • Magnesium
  • Melatonin – the only ingredient with an EFSA approved sleep claim… but “the regulatory status of this ingredient is variable – it’s not permitted in food in UK but it is allowed in dietary supplements in countries like France and Italy. Cherry juice is a natural source of melatonin and we are seeing that being used as an alternative.”
  • CBD
  • Affron
  • L-theanine

Missed any of the FoodNavigator Digital Summit 2021: Positive Nutrition? Don't worry, you can still access all of our sessions and handouts, which will be available on-demand for the next 90 days. Click here to REGISTER FOR FREE​. 

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