Consumers don’t want to eat from their medicine cabinet

As an outgrowth of the nutrition industry, many companies have been working hard to aggregate nutrition, taste, convenience and targeted functionality into food and beverage products. While these so called “functional foods” are not a new class of products, because of their tremendous popularity we have created this moniker to distinguish them from conventional or processed foods.

While we can debate what products are “functional foods”, the U.S. market for functional foods is greater than $30 billion in sales a year — about 5 percent of the total U.S. food market, and it’s growing at up to 10 percent per year, far more than the 1 to 4 percent forecast for the conventional food market. The U.S. functional foods market is predicted to be worth around $43 billion by 2013.

Consumers are finding functional foods attractive for a host of reasons. Most consumers are more proactive about their health, especially baby boomers that are witnessing the health issues of their parents and vainly refuse to succumb to the demise of aging. Many are recognizing the need for reintroducing the many “lost” nutrients that are proving to be beneficial for optimal health. Advances in food science have helped bring a far superior taste and mouth-feel to the integration of some otherwise nasty tasting bioactive ingredients. And while consumers have accepted the need for vitamin supplementation, 55% would prefer to buy foods for nutritional benefits than supplements. But to be successful in marketing functional foods one must remember that science tells and emotion sells. In other words, successful functional foods are based in science but purchased for taste and convenience; they are not medicines.

What are functional foods?

There are three different types of functional foods. First, there are those products which are inherently healthy. This includes products that do not add any bioactives, but intrinsically contain nutritional compounds that have scientific data to support functionality. For instance, Welch’s grape juice sales increased 33% following the release of clinical data supporting antioxidant activity and cardiovascular benefits; Gardenburger sales increased 25% in the two months following FDA approved health claims for soy; Cranberry juice sales increased 20% after the results of a 1994 Harvard study demonstrating health benefits; and General Mill’s Cheerios sales jumped 11% after being marketed for heart health benefit.

The second category of functional foods is those which add a researched bioactive compound to provide a health benefit. The classic example here is Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice which reformulated its line with added calcium fortification, growing sales 173% and building a new category. This category of functional foods addressed the reintroduction of orphaned phytonutrients which provide a validated functional benefit as discussed previously.

Finally, engineered functional foods are those formulated specifically to deliver a desired functional benefit. Whether you knock back a Red Bull for an energy lift, a PowerBar for sports performance benefit or a Gatorade to replenish electrolytes, these products are based upon scientific research to deliver to the consumer a desired benefit.

Functional Foods are not a panacea and are certainly a product category bound to be “abused”, just as dietary supplements have been. What do I mean by abused? In controlled dosing, such as pills, one can specify the amount of certain bioactive compounds such as vitamin A. But when these compounds are in a food product, it is a bit more difficult to manage the dosing, especially when a good tasting snack product is involved. Maybe one just wasn’t enough and soon the consumer is doubling or tripling the amount of vitamin A, possibly reaching a potentially toxic level. Remember General Mill’s Cheerios? Well the FDA recently claimed that Cheerios were being marketed as a drug, since the company promoted cholesterol reduction of 4% in 6 weeks.

Another valid concern is the encouragement of additional caloric intake. Functional foods “delude people into thinking that [they] are healthy,” says author and New York University food scientist Marion Nestle. And many of the foods marketed as functional are not particularly “healthy”, aside from the bioactives involved.

Considering that over half of households are using food or beverages to treat or manage specific health issues, it is important to recognize the burden that must be carried by companies marketing these products. If consumers are eating medicine like its food, they will get too much of a good thing. And the consumption of additional calories simply feeds a real health pandemic: obesity. So it is very important that manufacturers think very carefully about what they are formulating and how they are marketing these functional food products. The key take away is this: functional food success will be defined by wellness, not disease treatment.