At the World Health Organization’s (WHO; Geneva) upcoming European Ministerial Conference on Counteracting Obesity, which will be held in November in Istanbul, Turkey, many of the world’s leading health experts will convene to develop new plans for dealing with the obesity epidemic. With any luck, functional foods will be one of the strategies that helps makes a difference.
According to WHO, the prevalence of obesity in Europe has tripled over the past two decades. By 2010, there could be 150 million obese adults. An astounding 30–80% of adults are overweight in most European countries, notes WHO, which estimates that obesity accounts for nearly 6% of health costs.
Like Americans, Europeans are concerned about obesity, but unlike Americans, Europeans believe that healthier eating—rather than dieting—is the answer. In a May 2006 poll, Mintel International Group Ltd. (London) found that 43% of European consumers do not consider dieting to be necessary and prefer to concentrate instead on making better food choices.
Not surprisingly, European attitudes about healthy eating have created a strong regional demand for functional foods. Mintel pegged the UK functional food market at £1.1 billion (approximately $2.1 billion) in 2005. Beverages containing dairy ingredients are in very high demand, with probiotic yogurts representing a quarter of total functional food sales. Other key products include omega-3s, phytosterols, fibers, and organic ingredients.
Food quality and safety have become increasingly important in Europe during the past decade. While food quality concerns stem from the rising tide of obesity and other health problems, European food safety concerns are rooted in fears about mad cow disease and avian flu, as well as lingering distrust of food additives and genetically engineered foods. Functional foods that taste good, offer health benefits, and are made with trusted ingredients therefore have the best chance of succeeding in Europe.
EC Considering New Food Additive Legislation
The European Commission (EC) proposed draft legislation in July to harmonize European legislation for food enzymes and upgrade rules for flavorings and additives.
“Food additives, flavorings, and enzymes play an important role in the production of food for today’s mass market and can offer benefits to the consumer in terms of keeping food fresh and tasty,” Markos Kyprianou, commissioner for health and consumer protection, said on July 28.
The draft legislation establishes rules for the evaluation, approval, and control of enzymes used in food. Eventually, the legislation could lead to a positive list for food enzymes that are added to food for technological reasons, Kyprianou said.
The proposed rules are also intended to streamline the food additive approval system by permitting the commission to update and add food additives to the EU positive list following member state approval and a safety evaluation carried out by the European Food Safety Authority. In addition, the rules would clarify flavor definitions and provide stricter requirements for use of the term natural when referring to flavors.
“Clear, harmonized rules on the safety approval and marketing of these substances serve to protect the consumer and boost public confidence in the food produced with them,” Kyprianou said. “Today’s proposal ensures that these rules are based on sound scientific advice and that consumers are afforded the same level of safety, wherever they are in the EU.”
Over the past few years, interest in food quality has risen dramatically as consumers have become more aware about the link between obesity and health. A major turning point may have been in 2005, when celebrity chef Jamie Oliver began a campaign to improve the quality of school dinners in the UK. The campaign ultimately resulted in stricter nutritional requirements and hundreds of millions of pounds in increased government funding for school meals.
Europeans are also worried about food safety. Livestock diseases have cast a pall over some animal products, and nearly 30% of UK consumers see food additives as “an area of concern,” according to a May 2005 poll by Mintel. Perhaps more importantly, nearly 60% of European consumers in a recent Eurobarometer survey said they opposed the use of biotechnology in food. Consumer desire for food that is seen as safer and more natural has also led to a boom in organic food sales, which rose by 30% in 2005 in the UK, according to the Soil Association (Bristol, UK).
Because of these issues, European consumers are willing to pay a premium for foods that offer added value. The health and wellness section represented 11% of packaged food sales in France, for example, and both France and Switzerland saw a 5% increase in sales of health and wellness products last year, according to Euromonitor International (London). Additionally, market research from Mintel shows that the value of the UK functional food market grew by 143% since the start of the decade.
While consumers are interested in functional foods, functional beverages are where most of the growth is taking place. Diet, functional, organic, and natural drinks now make up 44% of the global soft drinks market, which reached $138 billion last year, according to Euromonitor.
Sports and energy drinks are a huge sector in the wellness beverage market. But condition-specific products have made dairy ingredients, omega-3 fatty acids, phytosterols, and soluble fibers into blockbuster ingredients for functional foods and beverages.
For example, sales of probiotic yogurts and yogurt drinks jumped from £97 million (approximately $185 million) in 2001 to £275 million (approximately $524 million) in 2005, according to market research from Mintel. Similarly, a new analysis from Frost & Sullivan (Palo Alto, CA) describes omega-3 fatty acids as having “worldwide appeal” because of their wide body of clinical research. The European market for phytosterols reached $184 million last year and could hit $395 million by 2012, according to Frost & Sullivan. And demand for soluble fibers could expand considerably, according to Frost & Sullivan, if manufacturers address competition from Asia and regulatory hurdles that keep consumers from understanding the benefits of fiber.
Consumer attitudes about healthy eating closely parallel these sales figures. For example, Euromonitor identifies two trends in France—one of the largest food markets in Europe—that are likely to influence consumer behavior: concerns about obesity and heart disease, and the desire for indulgent but nutritionally balanced products. All of the ingredients mentioned above address both of these areas.
Another component of the success of functional foods in Europe is the convenience factor. Consumers will shy away from functional foods, regardless of their benefits, if they are difficult to prepare, eat, or purchase.
Ready-to-eat products that offer extra health benefits may be an added draw for European consumers, who often find convenience and nutrition to be equally appealing. Mintel notes that 71% of UK consumers in 2005 bought ready-to-eat meals. But 70% also said they try to buy fresh produce as much as possible, and 24% avoided canned fruit and vegetables.
The £7 billion (approximately $13.3 billion) UK market for convenience foods has led many grocery stores to offer their own low-salt, low-fat, additive-free items, making it even easier for European consumers to purchase functional foods and other natural products.
“Own-brands are becoming the new power brands in the fight for market share in the European food retail sector,” according to Richard Perks, director of retail research at Mintel. “UK food retailers have also seized upon the increasing importance of healthy eating to a broader range of customers and have developed strong healthy eating own-brands.”
Changing cultural attitudes about obesity, nutrition, and food safety have helped create strong demand for functional foods overseas, particularly for health and wellness beverages. As long as European consumers continue to keep food quality and safety among their top priorities, the global outlook for functional foods is likely to stay strong in the years ahead.