Hot-Button Functional Foods

December 20, 2006

7 Min Read
Hot-Button Functional Foods

For over 120 years, functional foods have been reshaping the way Americans eat, drink and snack. Since at least the 1880s, health champions have urged us to eat graham crackers, Vermont maple syrup with a pure lemon juice chaser (a terrific cleanse), kefir and yogurt for digestive benefits, and even coffee enemas —although Starbucks has passed on this one so far.

These early functional foods paved the way for today’s booming market of fortified, enhanced, reduced, organic, fair trade, shade grown, grass fed, range free, line caught, GMO-free and antioxidant-rich foods, beverages and munchies.

The breadth and range of these new offerings is astonishing, given that prior to 1990 many of these claims were either unknown to the American consumer or forbidden by the government. In fact, the Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, MI, risked civil and criminal prosecution for stating that their fiber-rich cereal, All-Bran®, would help reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.

After much debate and several failed attempts at regulation by FDA, Congress passed the Nutritional Labeling Education Act in 1990. The NLEA—often called the National Lawyers Employment Act—created the Nutrition Facts box now familiar to all of us, as well as the health-claims procedure to allow foods to describe how they may reduce or prevent a disease or health-related condition. As a result, nuts, bananas, fiber, leafy-green vegetables, tomatoes and even pizza claim they can help reduce blood pressure, cancer and heart disease.

Today’s functional-food market continues to grow at a sizzling pace, and several major trends merit close attention.

Organics to the masses 

While not a functional-food category in the common definition, organic foods are generally perceived by the consumer as a healthier choice. However, sales of organic foods are limited by supply. The recent announcement by Wal-Mart, Bentonville, AR, that it intends to be the world’s largest purveyor of organic foods, has sent a shockwave through the organic industry. This announcement is seen as a good news, bad news event.

By virtue of its size, Wal-Mart would surely redefine the economic model for organic agriculture and consumer prices. Some fear that small farmers might not survive under this ferocious cost-cutting model. Others are worry that pressure could cause the strict USDA organic food standards to weaken in order to foster increases in supply.

However, nearly everyone agrees the move will democratize the organic-food marketplace, making otherwise-expensive items affordable to millions. Increasingly, it seems that the organic story is less about nutritional superiority —which may well be the case—but rather fear of exposure to a host of chemicals and other unwanted substances that are increasingly anathema to America’s moms.

Payloads and delivery systems 

Roughly half of the U.S. population uses a multivitamin or other supplement daily. This huge consumer base as a group is sliding—unwillingly —into the great demographic bulge of later middle age. This is a consumer with international tastes and preferences familiar with once-exotic ingredients and cuisines and who also has a high expectation that foods and supplements can help maintain a high quality of life—specifically to help control weight, improve energy and minimize pain and joint stiffness.

The good news is that supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin, methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), curcumin, hoodia, saw palmetto, lycopene, and even caffeine analogues are now widely used and accepted for these conditions. They do, however, present a dosage challenge. Some of these ingredients must be consumed in large quantities (3 to 10 grams per day), and the risk of pill fatigue is now driving development of functional foods, beverages and bars that offer the taste, convenience and benefits of weight management, joint flexibility, enhanced energy and so on.

The journey, however, from supplement dosage form to tasty and shelf-stable functional foods is not an easy one. Many a good project has ended up in the dumpster after the prototype functional food takes on strange flavors, colors or smells. It requires substantial skill and intuition to develop a robust, shelf-stable and yet tasty functional food.

In addition, there arises the problem of determining when a functional food becomes a supplement according to the NLEA. First and foremost, if an ingredient has not achieved GRAS (generally regarded as safe) or food-additive status, the FDA frowns upon using it in a food product to the point of taking legal action against the manufacturer. Anyone remember kava-kava snack chips or soup with added echinacea? Beverages and bars successfully straddle the food/supplement fence, but not much else.

But the trend is clear. Where a popular supplement ingredient can be converted into a good-tasting food, it will be.

Claims confusion 

Recently the FDA and Federal Trade Commission conducted a consumer survey to better understand how people perceive health claims and benefits for over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, dietary supplements and functional foods. To the government’s surprise, few consumers could distinguish these various product classes or claims and, in many cases, it appeared they did not care. In fact, the presence of qualifying language such as “not proven but suggestive,” “some data indicates,” and even the word “may” actually increased the consumer’s trust and confidence in the products on the view that the company was being honest.

While the government continues to scratch its head trying to figure out how to keep OTC drug supplements and food claims from becoming hopelessly tangled up, the message to industry is that competent branding and packaging remain essential elements.

We are entering uncharted territory as orange juice now offers cholesterol reducers, bananas help reduce blood pressure and dark chocolate will reduce your doctor’s bills. The ancient Hippocratic adage, “Let your food be your medicine,” has never been more true.

Benefit blur 

As the number of nutrient-content claims, health claims, benefit claims and structure/function claims multi-ply, the food industry is in danger of entering “benefit blur.” This blurring effect happens when benefit categories, such as “antioxidants help your immune system,” become so ubiquitous and so undifferentiated that consumers tend to assume all products making such claims are in essence the same.

Recently, I spent a few hours in local grocery stores and was overwhelmed by the number of SKUs offering healthy bones, more-flexible joints, enhanced immune system, efficient gastrointestinal tracts, brighter eyes, lower cholesterol and higher libido. The consequence of such claims is no longer the exception, but the overwhelming rule.

It appears that the strength of science is not yet well understood by consumers who tend to revert to favorite brands, preferred colors and old buying patterns once they approach claim fatigue.

Micro’s big future 

In the very near future, a host of high-end functional ingredients such as lycopene, omega-3 fatty acids, CoQ10, cinnamon extract and curcumin will take on the look and feel of high-tech weaponry. They will be micro-sized, micro-beaded, acid resistant, delayed release and even genome-specific. Just as with computers, enormous advantage will be gained by those who own and control micro technologies.

These ingredients are being developed with special technologies using the actual material itself, accomplished by various means. This involves some pretty high-tech systems used from other industries, including pharmaceutical, and even metal-coating systems.

Rising waters and sinking sodas 

America’s obesity epidemic, with the resulting rise in diabetes and heart disease, will shortly become a national economic and political crisis. The soda, salty-snack and fast-food industries will continue to be under siege and will be urgently looking to replace current offerings with fortified waters and other healthy options.

The global, multilevel marketing industry has discovered the value of exotic tropical juices. The once unknown noni, mangosteen, açai and wolfberry (also called goji berry) juices will become household names, as will other beverages based on tropical, antioxidant- rich fruits. Pomegranate juice has been a sensational success in the mass market and will be followed by other juices with high ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) values.

Go yogurt 

One of the most-interesting and underdeveloped categories is probiotics, especially the lactic-bacteria family. Yogurt, kefirs and specialized acidophilus products are poised to boom.

The reason? For one, many younger and middle-aged women suffer from irritable bowel syndrome and other bowel discomforts. Yogurt and lactic-bacteria-based products are trendy, conveniently sized, beautifully presented and offer real benefits for millions of women who, up until recently, have quietly suffered from digestive discomfort. In addition, research suggests probiotic bacteria play a role in a variety of other health effects, including enhanced immunity.

The future of functional foods is now. The need for and value of condition- specific foods and organic foods is clear, as is the demand.

As an old chef once told me, “If they like lunch, they will stay for dinner”—especially if it is functional. 

Loren Israelsen is president of LDI Group, Inc., a specialized consulting firm based in Salt Lake City dealing with dietary-supplement and functional-food commercial and regulatory issues. He began his career in the supplement and nutritional-food industry in 1979 and travels and lectures widely on regulatory, political and international issues that affect the global supplement and nutrition industry. His favorite functional food is artichokes. He just can’t get enough of them. Contact him at [email protected].

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