Right now, commercially produced functional foods, i.e. foods with benefits beyond basic nutrition, are causing quite a stir. Worldwide, companies are capitalising on the concept.
In recent months, quite a few slightly off-the-wall products have been the result:
A Japanese food manufacturer recently tried to get a piece of the functional-food pie by marketing collagen marshmallows. These innovative sweets, which come in a variety of appetising flavours, are marketed as an alternative to collagen injections – aimed at plumping out the lips and cheeks of the consumers who eat them.
Another example comes from France. Last year, a bronzing water drink was introduced in this country. The product claims to give you a healthy, tanned skin if you drink a 500ml bottle for nine consecutive days.
Earlier this year, scientists from the Czech Republic created a new, non-alcoholic beer aimed at women in their menopause. According to the researchers, the beer relieves menopausal symptoms and preserves bone density by means of a high phytoestrogen content.
And, in some countries, chocolate has become the latest addition to the rapidly growing functional-food list. Unfortunately, the functional chocolates are now marketed in societies where obesity is taking a heavy toll.
Whether these products are truly beneficial, is debatable. However, reports seem to indicate that functional foods will be luring more and more consumers in years to come.
Consumer awareness abroad
In Europe, the United States and certain parts of Asia, a large percentage of consumers are already aware of functional foods and the benefits of certain functional-food components. This is reflected by increased sales of products that are marketed as such.
Experts say that sales of functional foods are expected to grow strongly in these countries during the next three or four years. It is estimated, however, that sales will start to drop by 2010 – as the market matures.
The current upwards trend coincides with greater consumer interest in the relationship between diet and health. This could be partly owing to the fact that the media plays a prominent role in creating awareness in terms of functional foods in these countries.
According to the Food for Thought research project, conducted in America over a 10-year period, reports on functional foods now form a prominent part of food news in this country – with 11% of reports focusing on the subject.
A few recent studies illustrate awareness levels among European and American consumers:
Results of a survey released in 2006 showed that 33% of German consumers are aware of the functions and benefits of lutein – a very specific functional-food component, found in green vegetables and believed to contribute to the maintenance of healthy vision. Germany is Europe's biggest functional foods market.
Another study, conducted in 2002, showed that 93% of Americans believe that some foods have health benefits that go beyond basic nutrition. The same study also showed that more than 80% of Americans can associate at least one functional food with a disease or health condition it could have an effect on.
But although US sales of functional foods increased by approximately 7% a year between 1999 and 2004, a recent report indicates that many consumers still refrain from buying products containing added functional ingredients because they simply don't trust their makers. Forty-five percent of the American study participants indicated that they distrust the health-boosting claims made by food and drink manufacturers.
Awareness in terms of probiotic cultures also seems to be lagging behind. In fact, limited consumer awareness threatened to restrain the development of probiotic markets in 2003. A study conducted during this time, showed that consumer knowledge of probiotics were still low in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Awareness in the developing world
Not surprisingly, awareness in the developing world seems to be far less. For example, in a country such as South Africa, consumers are still unaware of the way in which pre- and probiotics can give their health a boost.
A recent study conducted by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology looked at pre- and probiotic awareness and understanding among consumers purchasing yoghurt at large retail food stores in South Africa. A mere 14% of the study participants indicated that they have heard of probiotics, while only 3% indicated that they were aware of the term "prebiotics".
In terms of both the pre- and probiotic concepts, the participants indicated that their major sources of information were the printed media, followed by family, friends and colleagues. Food product labels, advertisements and brochures were also sited as sources.
Both prebiotics and probiotics were most likely to be associated with yoghurt and cereal products.
Growing the market
Worldwide, consumers are taking a greater interest in their health. They read more food labels and they actively search for products that can give their health a boost.
There is greater awareness in terms of foods that can prevent chronic diseases of lifestyle, such as cancer and heart disease. And it is here that functional foods have a critical role to play – both in the developed and the developing world.
But food manufacturers, along with the media, need to create greater awareness relating to the mechanisms and health benefits of functional foods and functional-food components.
Food labels should say more, more money should be channelled towards awareness campaigns, and the media should start taking an active interest in reporting on a topic that has the potential to boost the health of their readers.
Such endeavours shouldn't be underestimated. Research shows that providing information about functional foods stimulates consumer awareness.
In 2000, Canadian consumers were introduced to the concept of functional foods. They were given information about the health benefits and were told that certain foods could cut their disease risk. As a result, 88% showed an interest in learning more about these foods.
Apart from creating awareness, the industry should also ensure that health claims are backed up by scientifically sound, independent research.
The media has a responsibility
In conclusion, it can be said that the media has a responsibility to ensure that off-beat, innovative food products, that aren't necessarily beneficial, aren't bundled together with foods that have rightfully earned their functional-food status.
A clear distinction should be made between foods with clear health benefits, such as omega-3-enriched eggs or probiotic yoghurts, and foods that are simply hitching a ride on the bandwagon.
In the market, this distinction should also be made with the help of health authorities, who should ensure that tough regulations on food labelling are enforced.
In the meantime, the media will probably still be criticised for sending mixed messages – also in terms of functional foods. One day soy will be touted a miracle food in a certain publication; the next, the same publication will say that it poses health risks.
The consumer must realise, however, that functional foods are a new, evolving and dynamic concept, and that new research is emerging every day. It is the responsibility of both the consumer and the media to place the ongoing research in context – and to watch the development of the field with a keen, but critical, eye.
- (Carine van Rooyen, October 2006)
Fight disease with functional foods