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What do consumers think about functional ingredients?

A recent InsightsNow report dives deep on what consumers know, and don't know, about functional foods, drinks and ingredients.

It’s no secret today’s consumers don’t just want food and drinks that taste good; they want food and drinks that do something for them. Grand View Research Inc. reported a 49% increase since 2009 in consumers who believe functional or fortified foods are important in maintaining their health. The firm also estimated sales of functional beverages will reach US$94 billion in 2019, while the sales of functional foods are expected to reach a whopping $275 billion by 2025.

While that broad overview of the market paints a rosy picture, it’s just that: a broad overview. Within those functional and fortified food and drink markets, what are consumer behaviors really like? What do consumers know, what don’t they know, and what are they looking for when they peruse their local grocery aisles?

The latest issue of behavioral research firm InsightsNow’s “Clean Label Research ​Community Behavior Report​” provides great understanding of how all kinds of consumers think about their foods.

The study, conducted in July and August of 2019, surveyed two groups of consumers: One the firm labeled “clean label enthusiasts” (CLE), and the other, shoppers not concerned with clean labels (non-CLE).

While the study confirmed CLE consumers paid more attention to health claims and labels on food and beverage purchases, both groups showed concern. Of the CLE respondents, 48% agreed with the statement “I am proactive with my health.” Even among non-CLE consumers, more than 1 in 5 agreed.

When it comes to specific benefits being sought, while CLE consumers consistently showed more interest, both groups agreed on many aspects. Within both subgroups, “good source of vitamins and minerals” was the top benefit sought (60% of CLE, 42% of non-CLE), and in both groups, protein (55% CLE, 35% non-CLE), heart health (44%, 28%) and cholesterol-lowering (38%, 25%) were among top benefits sought. There were some notable divergences, such as “good source of antioxidants,” which was sought by 44% of CLE respondents compared to just 19% non-CLE, and “has anti-inflammatory properties” (32%, 10%).

The InsightsNow team concluded it would behoove brands to focus on the shared desires between consumer groups.

Within the CLE group, InsightsNow provided even more data in the form of its trademarked Implicit/Explicit Test:

“In the test, we put respondents into the context of the personal health and wellness benefits provided by the food, beverages and supplements that they purchase for themselves or family members. When they saw each ingredient and benefit, they had to select "YES" or "NO" as quickly as possible; their choice and reaction time were used to calculate an Implicit/Explicit Test score for each ingredient and benefit combination. Higher Implicit/Explicit Test scores indicate that participants were more likely to implicitly accept an ingredient and benefit combination, while lower scores indicate that participants were more likely to implicitly reject it.”

The combinations included a food or ingredient and a benefit, such as “apple; promotes heart health” or “omega-3; anti-inflammatory.”

These scores revealed something telling about even the most health-conscious consumers. While the responses did show these consumers to be generally well-informed, some common misconceptions emerged among the group as well. For example, most respondents correctly identified some ingredients, like salmon, broccoli, red wine and cranberries as promoting hearth health. However, 82% of respondents also misidentified olive oil as having heart health benefits, and 62% did so with coconut oil.

Other such misattributions included 42% incorrectly believing wheat bran provided bone and joint health benefits, 74% falsely linking omega-6 to energy and 75% linking orange juice to immune support. Omega-6 proved an especially misunderstood ingredient, with an additional 60% falsely believing it provided anti-inflammatory benefits and 74% incorrectly believing it provided energy-boosting effects.

Overall, the data provided insight into several takeaways that should serve CPG brands. Both self-described health enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike are, to some degree, looking to purchase foods and beverages that promote a state of well-being. Additionally, for the most part, both groups are looking for similar benefits, such as extra protein and promoting heart health. However, even the most well-versed and well-educated consumers can harbor misconceptions about certain ingredients or foods and the benefits they’ve been shown to provide; omega-6 particularly appears to be misunderstood.

Brands would do well to not only provide the benefits people are seeking, but continue to educate consumers on which foods or specific ingredients may best suit them moving forward.

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