Food to feel good about: Functional food prospects post-pandemic

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 24 No. 10
Volume 24
Issue 10

Consumers’ growing search for brain health, immune health, mood support, and more will continue driving functional foods long after COVID-19.

Photo © Nataliya Yakovleva -

Photo © Nataliya Yakovleva -

When did it fully dawn upon you that functional foods had made it to the mainstream?

For Lior Lewensztain, founder and CEO of That’s It Nutrition (Los Angeles), one proverbial “Aha!” moment arrived when he learned that his company’s probiotic-boosted fruit bars were becoming hot commodities in—of all places—Walmart.

“It’s relevant to note,” Lewensztain emphasizes, “that we’re talking about Walmart here, and not, say, Whole Foods. Because that represents what’s going on with the average American consumer: These consumers are making the direct connection between what they put in their bodies and how they feel, and they’re showing more care and intention in choosing which foods they eat.”

The upshot for consumers and for the brands that feed them, he concludes, is simple: “We’re really starting to see people pay attention, and respond, to functional, whole foods.”

COVID Effect

And who can blame them? Almost two years after reality took an unexpected turn for everyone, consumers at Walmart, Whole Foods, and beyond continue to rethink their relationship with food.

Citing data from Nutrition Business Journal, Max Maxwell, manager, market intelligence, Glanbia Nutritionals (Chicago), notes that domestic functional food and beverage sales grew 8.2% in 2020, reaching a value of $77 billion—with projections growing the sector a further 6.8% in 2021 to a value of more than $82 billion.

“This COVID bounce,” Maxwell contends, “motivated many people to try functional foods, and that trial will result in incremental sales. People have never been more concerned about their health.”

John Quilter, vice president of global portfolio, ProActive Health, Kerry (Beloit, WI), agrees—although he considers the pandemic’s effects “more of a rapid acceleration than a bounce.” Even before COVID-19, he notes, “Consumers had been proactive with their health and were actively interested in functional foods and beverages. So, it’s no surprise that the pandemic gave that trend new energy.”

What’s more, he says, signs suggest the energy will persist. “Though the world may be returning to ‘normal’ in some respects,” Quilter wagers, “interest in functional nutrition will endure into the foreseeable future.”

Mindful Munching

All of which delights Lewensztain. “One of the most exciting shifts we’ve seen is the increasingly mainstream understanding that food can be medicine,” he says, “and that what you put in your body can dramatically impact your overall health, boost your natural strength and immunity, and help protect you from disease. That’s going to stay even as we transition back to normal.”

Mayuresh Bedekar, director of product strategy for bioactives at Glanbia Nutritionals, chalks it up to a mindful approach to eating—and he, too, doesn’t expect it soon to recede.

“‘What’s good for me?’ and ‘Is this right for me?’ have become important decision-making points with shoppers post-COVID,” Bedekar observes. “So, we can count on concepts such as brain health, staying fit, and eating for immunity to stay around for the long term.”

It’s All Related

Those concepts reflect what Quilter describes as “a broadening of the areas where consumers seek functional benefits.”

Their functional wish list is expanding in part thanks to unprecedented access to information around diet and health. But just as important, Quilter says, is science’s continual evolution, “which deepens our understanding of the relationship between the microbiome, the immune system, the brain, and more. That’s driving research, product development, and consumer interest in functional ingredients.”

First Line of Defense

Consider the obvious interest in immune health. According to FMCG Gurus’ March 2021 “How Has COVID-19 Changed Consumer Behavior?” report, 65% of global consumers claimed to be more conscious of immunity because of COVID-19.

Kerry’s 2021 global consumer survey reinforces their awareness. “We presented consumers with a list of health areas and asked them which were among their reasons for buying healthy-lifestyle products,” Quilter explains. The kicker: 58% percent of respondents identified immune support as a compelling purchasing factor, putting it ahead of healthy bones and joints, digestive health, heart health, and improved energy. “Four in 10 consumers had even used an immune-health product over the past six months,” Quilter notes.

Check Your Head

Beyond immunity, “Consumers have grown more in tune with their mental and emotional wellness needs as they cope with the pandemic’s significant lifestyle shifts,” observes June Lin, vice president, global marketing, health and wellness, ADM (Chicago). Per FMCG Gurus’ 2021 survey, 48% of global consumers claimed to be more conscious of their mental wellbeing courtesy of COVID-19.

And while cognitive health—mental health’s brainier cousin—took a backseat to matters of mood during the pandemic, “Indications are that interest in cognitive health is bouncing back, and not just with seniors,” reports Ranjana Sundaresan, lead research analyst, Spoonshot AI (St. Paul, MN).

Spoonshot analysis shows that media references to cognitive health jumped 22% from January to September of 2021, compared to mental health’s jump of 16%. “In addition,” Sundaresan continues, “the concept of improving cognitive health is becoming important among new consumers, particularly those looking for focus and faster decision-making—students, gamers, athletes, and even office workers.”

One functional ingredient she suspects will catch on in this space is green-oat (Avena sativa) extract, made from the immature aerial parts of the plant. Used for centuries in traditional medicine, it enjoys the backing of recently published clinical trials showing “significant positive effects on cognitive functions such as improved performance speed, executive function, working and episodic memory, attention, and quantitative function,” Sundaresan claims. Of interest to formulators, the extract is also water-soluble and “could potentially offer consumers alternatives to coffee or caffeine for helping them focus,” she adds.

Bedekar has also watched brain health, cognition, and even eye health ascend the priority ladder now that “working from home and long screen times have become the norm,” he says. As far as associated ingredients go, he notes that L-theanine, L-glutamine, choline, ashwagandha, Ginkgo biloba, and Panax ginseng all contribute to mental performance, while vitamins C and E, zinc, lutein, zeaxanthin, and omega-3 fatty acids show potential in formulations addressing eye health, he says.

Probiotic Popularity

Quilter notes that research is mounting vis-à-vis probiotics’ role in promoting cognitive health, mental wellbeing, and mood, adding that Kerry’s recent global survey showed that 25% of consumers had used a probiotic product over the past six months—up from 21% in 2019.

But cognition and mood are hardly probiotics’ only functional bailiwicks. “With holistic health top of mind,” Lin says, “consumers are increasingly aware that the gut microbiome is central to wellness. Our research finds that 58% of global consumers are aware that bacteria in the digestive system have potential benefits on overall health.”

Indeed, adds Sundaresan, “There’s a growing body of research showing just how important gut health may be for overall health, since it appears to impact so many parts of our body. We’re expecting to hear more about topics like the gut-brain axis, gut-lung axis, and oral-gut axis. Even immunity has a strong relationship to gut health.”

But with consumers focusing on their microbiomes—and seeking out probiotics to support them—Quilter stresses the importance of formulating with strains “backed by high-quality science.” Kerry’s spore-forming Bacillus coagulans GBI-30, 6086, strain, for instance rests on a research record of 25-plus published papers demonstrating its support for immune and digestive health, as well as better protein utilization1, Quilter says.

“And the development of resilient, spore-forming strains has allowed for the introduction of probiotic benefits into a much wider range of products than were previously available,” Quilter adds, “including everything from teas and coffees to muffins, nutrition bars, and peanut butter.”

But because not all probiotics are spore formers, many can still be finicky ingredients to handle. As such, “There will be greater focus in the coming years on the emerging class of postbiotic ingredients,” Sundaresan predicts, “to address some of probiotics’ challenges, such as heat sensitivity and safety.”

Case in point: HT-BPL1, the heat-treated postbiotic counterpart to ADM’s BPL1 Bifidobacterium animalis subsp. lactis CECT 8145 probiotic, can withstand processing conditions as harsh as the high heat of baking, Lin says.

Make It Easy

“Ingredient solutions like these are becoming more important as people look for products with functional ingredients in convenient formats that meet their day-to-day needs and work with their lifestyles,” Lin notes. “More than ever, consumers want convenience, flexibility, choice, and variety.”

And brands are taking note. As Bedekar says, “Functional is everywhere these days. It’s not only in bars but has also expanded into a broader ‘healthy-snacking’ category. This includes cereals, bites, extruded snacks, and more.”

That said, the Ingredient Transparency Center’s 2021 Consumer Functional Food Survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers found that when asked about the specific use occasions where they’re most likely to be looking for a food with functional benefits, consumers surprisingly ranked snacks and beverages “well below the major meal occasions,” notes Traci Kantowski, communications director, Trust Transparency Center (Spring, TX), “indicating that consumers expect functional benefits at major meals, and that snacking is not strongly associated with products with functional benefits.”

Even so, Lewensztain remains unfazed. “I think bars will continue as one of the most popular functional-food formats,” he declares. “Especially as we begin transitioning back to on-the-go living, you can’t beat their convenient portability. However, I believe that supplements and whole foods in general will also continue gaining popularity and momentum.”

Healthy Indulgences

So, too, will foods that deliver a touch of fantasy to leaven their functionality.

“As the pandemic’s prolonged effects continue,” Lin says, “people are beginning to shift from impulsive to purposeful indulgences, seeking offerings that deliver rich, decadent flavors and textures as well as positive nutrition.”

Brands can check those boxes by “leveraging botanical, spice, and nostalgic flavors to elevate fortified snacks, bars, and confections,” she suggests. “The winter months, for example, provide opportunities for spices like cardamom and ginger, and classic flavors like vanilla and salted caramel. And botanicals like carob—which is sweet, and a great ingredient for adding fiber—can enhance products with flavor and function.”

It’s proof that good-for-you needn’t come at the expense of just-plain good. “Our dark-chocolate truffles are a perfect example,” Lewensztain says. “They’re decadent and delicious but also vegan and made with only four ingredients. They don’t need all the dyes, added sugars, and unnecessary ingredients. It’s possible to make delicious comfort foods from natural, minimal inputs—and there’s huge opportunity for brands that recognize this.”

In fact, Lewensztain continues, “There’s so much opportunity for brands to innovate in this space. Consumers are looking for functional foods, and the brands leading the movement will feel that impact. But where there’s opportunity for brands to position themselves positively, that also comes with the responsibility not to mislead. If brands are doing their jobs and using clean ingredients, this won’t be difficult. It might even make their lives easier.”


  1. Stecker et al. “Bacillus coagulans GBI-30, 6086 improves amino acid absorption from milk protein.” Nutrition & Metabolism. Published online October 23, 2020.
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