Functional Foods: Which health-related claims are hits with consumers?

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This article examines health-related claims activity in the marketplace.

It’s easy to understand why the idea of functional food continues to attract consumers, manufacturers, and ingredient companies.  There’s universal appeal in a food that employs the latest science to provide consumers with targeted health benefits.

Although the average consumer may not recognize the actual marketing term functional food (ask consumers to define “functional” in the food sense and they’ll likely give you an answer much different than what you’d expect), we do know that consumers are drawn to functional claims on food and beverages. This article examines health-related claims activity in the marketplace. While most data focus on the U.S. market, we’ll also take a quick look at the rest of the world.

Where Do Condition-Specific Claims Stand?

Globally, which are the most-used health-related claims? A quick look at a list of the top-15 global active claims used on packaging (Table 1) reveals that the most prevalent claim by far is that of “No Additives/Preservatives.” Following this are claims catering to the consumer or consumer lifestyle, including “Low/No/Reduced Allergen” or kosher, vegetarian, gluten-free, and organic.

Note that none of the key condition-specific functional health claims (see Table 3 on page 56) that Mintel International also tracks-such as “slimming,” “cardiovascular,” “digestive health,” “bone health”-appear on the list of the top-15 globally used claims. In fact, these types of functional health claims account for a relatively small number of the claims made on product introductions, probably because condition-specific claims are quite targeted and address smaller audiences.

Organic versus Natural

Side-stepping functional claims for  second, let’s compare how organic versus natural claims stack up. In the global market (Table 1), organic claims rank higher than claims of all natural. Compared to this, in the U.S. market, all natural ranks higher than organic. Why? While U.S. consumers seem to be more accepting of the all natural claim, global consumers seem more skeptical of it. Instead, global consumers may prefer a claim like organic that is more likely associated with an official certification program.

Global consumers, in fact, may be more skeptical of health claims in general, with more consumers wanting companies to prove that their products’ benefit claims are true. In fact, in the UK market, two-thirds of consumers say they believe that functional food claims on products are likely to be exaggerated.

U.S. Functional Claims

In the United States, condition-specific health claims appeared on 6.94% of product introductions in 2011, representing a substantial increase over 5.82% in 2008.

Looking more closely at how these U.S. claims rank (Table 3), a category we call “other”-which includes claims such as sports recovery, relaxation, or energy-ranks highest. The next most popular claims are “slimming” claims.

Many functional claims showed a steady increase in use, even during the recession. Interestingly, while we saw an overall decrease in the number of U.S. product introductions in 2009, functional claims did not subsequently decline. This tells us that although there were fewer products introduced in 2009, these products may have been, by and large, more closely targeted and trying to ensure that they clearly and specifically meet consumer needs.

A Few Key Product Introductions

In the U.S. market, we have seen a range of interesting and unique product introductions focusing on functional benefits. While many launches stem from smaller companies, there is also significant functional food/beverage activity from some of the largest companies in the market.

For example, Starbucks Coffee recently introduced a new sparkling drink made from green coffee, in both its shops and at retail. The drink, called Refreshers, is said to provide an energy boost of caffeine but without the taste of coffee.

Another type of product that we categorize in the “other” functional claims category is the broad category of coconut waters. Their natural hydration properties provide clear, understandable benefits to consumers. And increasingly, we see coconut water being blended with a range of other ingredients. For example, RealBeanz, a small specialty company, offers its Refresh Dark Roast Iced Coffee with Coconut Water. It is 20% coconut water and claims to be “nature’s own hydrator” that boosts muscles, tissues, and cells. We anticipate these types of hybrid drinks-part energy drink, part nourishment or replenishment-to continue to grow in the market, especially as more consumers become aware of the benefits of the specific ingredients.

One could say that the “poster child” for functional foods in the U.S. market is probiotic yogurt. Probiotics are still a relatively new trend in the U.S. market, although probiotics have continued expanding into other market categories. We have seen the number of introductions-and the sales of those introductions-grow over the last several years, and what is especially exciting to see are the new types of functional food categories now embracing probiotics. 

Also, it should be noted that not all of these probiotic products are from niche companies or premium priced. The Safeway family of stores offers its Eating Right line, and one of the newest products in the line is a bar made with the probiotic strain Bacillus coagulans. This particular strain is said to survive high-heat and high-pressure environments, thus making it suitable for processing into a bar. Safeway’s peanut butter bar contains 4 g fiber and 8 g protein as well, allowing it to also boast satiety benefits.

Speaking of fiber, we continue to see growth in fiber-containing products. Claims touted by fiber-fortified foods include controlling cholesterol, aiding weight loss, and assisting digestive health.

General Mills’ Fiber One brand has continued to expand into new categories. One of its latest introductions is  90 Calorie Chocolate Caramel & Pretzel Chewy Bars, which provide 20% of the daily value of fiber.

Functional Future

What do we think is ahead for functional foods, especially in the U.S. market?

Look for an increased focus on ingredients that are easy for consumers to understand and adopt-fiber, vitamins, minerals. Also look for products to promote functionality within everyday ingredients such as fruits and vegetables.

Those functional ingredients that are more difficult to understand or that are more “scientific” in nature traditionally are ones that consumers are a bit slower to accept. Although the functional foods market can be one that is challenging to enter and succeed in, we anticipate it to be a market that will continue to grow for years to come.