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A Wellness State of Mind

March 12, 2010
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We all know that food and water are necessary to sustain life - but some foods and beverages can do much more than sustain life and prevent nutrient deficiencies. Dubbed “functional” foods and beverages, these products serve up ingredients that provide additional health benefits such as reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease or cancer.

We all know that food and water are necessary to sustain life - and that our diets must contain specific nutrients, in sufficient quantities, to meet individual nutritional requirements.

But some foods and beverages can do much more than sustain life and prevent nutrient deficiencies. Dubbed “functional” foods and beverages, these products serve up ingredients that provide additional health benefits such as reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease or cancer.

The Chicago-based Institute of Food Technologists defines functional foods as “foods and food components that provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition.” Although FDA does not formally recognize functional foods and beverages as a category, the agency does allow qualified health claims on foods and beverages containing certain health-promoting ingredients (see www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/LabelClaims/QualifiedHealthClaims/default.htm).

And functional foods mesh well with the needs of increasingly health-conscious U.S. consumers. Despite trying economic conditions, sales of functional foods remain strong, according to “Functional Foods - US,” an August 2009 report from Mintel International Group, Chicago.

“Marketers and retailers continue to introduce new products, and more consumers continue to try them,” Mintel says. “To maintain the momentum, functional foods players will need to continue expanding into new benefit areas. They will also need to navigate an increasingly active FDA, which promises to scrutinize claims more closely.”

Condition Consideration

Many consumers today are in prevention mode when it comes to their health, hoping to fend off a host of common conditions and diseases.

“Consumers have an increased awareness regarding health issues and are making manageable efforts to improve their overall health and well-being,” says Laura Corser, senior business manager for Dunkirk, N.Y.-based Cliffstar Corp. “We are seeing certain consumers seeking unique solutions for their specific health issues. On the opposite end, we also see that functional beverages are beginning to appeal to the mainstream consumers who are looking for general health and wellness benefits.”

Baby boomers are a key driver in the functional food and beverage movement, notes Beth Wierzbicki, marketing manager for Carneys Point, N.J.-based Clement Pappas & Co. Inc.

“But across all generations, there is increased awareness of our own ability to impact general health in some easy ways,” she says.

Fortunately for these folks, manufacturers are developing functional foods and beverages that target a rapidly growing list of conditions.

Bill Petrich, CEO of Columbia, Mo.-based Suntava, says he notes more interest in products that increase energy, address sleep disorders, reduce inflammation, promote weight control and reduce stress. He believes the stepped-up activity around stress-reducing and sleep-aiding food and beverage formulations can be attributed, in part, to current global economic conditions.

Jennifer Lindsey, director of marketing, North America for Denmark-based Danisco, adds cardiovascular concerns/high blood pressure, allergies, diabetes and digestive issues to the list of conditions consumers are looking to prevent, while Corser points to bone health and brain function as areas consumers are aiming to enhance.

Ingredients for Success

Although some products might merit a functional designation without augmentation (green tea, for example), most of today’s functional foods and beverages rely on added ingredients to gain that extra health punch. And a number of these ingredients currently are capturing consumers’ attention.

“Omega 3 and omega 3-related products have been rapidly growing in popularity over the last four to five years, and are still continuing to grow,” says Jared Stober, vice president of sales and marketing for Flax USA Inc. of Goodrich, N.D. “Consumers are always looking for ways to improve their health, but more and more are searching for natural and organic products. With health care costs rising, using a natural/organic product to alleviate/prevent health issues becomes an important part of a consumer’s diet.”

In 2004, FDA announced the availability of a qualified health claim for the reduced risk of coronary heart disease on conventional foods that contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega 3 fatty acids.

Most consumers are aware of omega 3 and the benefits of including it in their diet, Stober says. But these same consumers might not be familiar with flax seed as a non-seafood source of omega 3. Retailers that opt to enhance certain private label food offerings with flax seed-derived omega 3, therefore, might want to engage in a bit of consumer education.

“By educating the consumer that flax is nature’s highest plant source of omega 3, they can connect the health benefits with the food,” Stober says. “By selecting the right functional foods, private label programs can take advantage of all the research and publicity that is being done on the health issues.”

The inclusion of whole grains in foods, too, has become extremely popular, thanks to the association with better weight management - as well as a reduced risk for stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and more - with whole grain consumption.

Petrich says his company offers a purple corn-derived ingredient technology that not only imparts the benefits of whole grains, but also serves some very healthful antioxidants. The ingredient works well in food applications ranging from corn chips and tortillas to cereals and snacks, imparting a rich color and a slight nutty flavor.

“Purple corn has even been touted as a ‘superfood,’” he says, “because of its abundant antioxidants. It has just about the highest antioxidant rating of any food that’s out there right now, including blueberries.”

Wierzbicki agrees that antioxidants are of high interest, thanks to their ability to promote cellular health. Also popular, she says, are plant sterols (for heart health), vitamin C (for a healthy immune system), fiber (for digestive health), vitamin A and lutein (for eye health), and glucosamine (for joint health).

Tim Greene, director of sales, branded and private label for Sparta, Wis.-based Century Foods International, adds vitamin D and protein to the list of “wonder” ingredients.

“Shot delivery systems will be future drivers, in my opinion,” he adds.

Within the dairy and beverage categories, probiotics - “friendly” bacteria that help to support the immune system, digestive health and more (often found in combination with prebiotic fibers that help boost probiotics’ activity and benefits) - continue to capture consumers’ attention. But credibility in terms of ingredients is key here, stresses Peggy Steele, Danisco’s global business director for health and nutrition.

“For example,” she says, “if you are adding probiotics to your dairy beverage/smoothie and you are positioning your product for enhanced digestive health, then your product should only contain those strains of probiotics that have been scientifically proven to be the correct strains for enhanced digestive health and [are] delivered in the amounts necessary to derive such benefits.”

Danisco’s HOWARU Bifido and HOWARU Rhamnosus probiotics are specifically selected to modulate the immune system, Steele notes, with numerous human studies backing up their performance. Another product, HOWARU Dophilus, has been investigated widely in human studies for its intestinal health benefits.

“More recently, Danisco introduced HOWARU Protect, a unique probiotic formulation proved to maintain respiratory health in children,” Steele says. “In addition, Danisco also markets HOWARU Restore, developed specifically for the restoration and maintenance of healthy gut flora during antibiotic therapy.”

Making It Work

The seemingly endless list of health conditions, together with the rapidly growing array of health-promoting ingredients, could be enough to discourage some retailers from entering into the functional food and beverage arena. But functional foods and beverages can help to differentiate and give a “competitive edge” to retailers’ private brands programs, emphasizes Pat Nicolino, vice president of marketing for Clement Pappas. They also can be part of a strategy that seeks to go beyond national brand equivalent.

“Clement Pappas launched such a functional beverage targeted to the 77 million baby boomers,” she notes. “We call it ‘Boomer Basics.’ This is a juice-based functional beverage with 25 percent juice to provide a great-tasting and healthy base and yet only 60 calories per 8-ounce serving, an important benefit to baby boomers.”

The beverage - which promotes eye, digestive, bone and immune system health - currently is available in Cran-Raspberry, Peach Mango, Pomegranate Blueberry Acai, and Citrus Carrot flavors, Nicolino says.

Speaking of beverages, Lindsey notes that they make excellent carriers for cardio health promoters such as betaine or digestive-aiding ingredients such as fiber. In fact, beverages, along with dairy, are perhaps the best natural fit for retailers looking to enter the functional food and beverage arena.

“Dairy and beverage present the greatest opportunity to be vehicles of the [popular] ingredients for health and nutrition benefits,” Lindsey says. “For example … dairy products naturally align with pre/probiotics for immune and digestive health and calcium/vitamin D fortification for strong bones and blood pressure.”

Beyond product vehicles, retailers will need to carefully evaluate functional ingredient sourcing, Wierzbicki notes.

“Retailers will want to work closely with trusted suppliers to make sure the raw materials and the way they are handled [are] within acceptable protocols,” she says.

No matter whether the functional product is a food or a beverage, communication is critical, too. Stober advises retailers to clearly state the nutritional and health benefits directly on the packaging and/or in-store displays. (Any qualified health claims made, of course, must stand up to FDA scrutiny.)

Wierzbicki agrees.

“Private brands will need to give serious thought to how they will communicate the product ‘story,’” she maintains. “Specific benefits need to be explained and highlighted; they can’t sell themselves from small-type copy on a label.”

Petrich recommends taking a branded strategy, where possible, in terms of calling out functional ingredients. This tactic goes further to communicate any health benefits, he says, and makes a product stand out on the shelf.

“I think when you have a branded ingredient, it creates differentiation from others competing against the same product,” Petrich says. “We’ve seen successful products launch where they’ve got a branded omega 3 or a branded antioxidant to create some sort of clout on the shelf.”

As you might expect, cleaner labels also go a long way to communicate functional foods and beverages’ health message.

“People don’t want to see words they don’t understand on a label,” Petrich emphasizes.

Going hand in hand with cleaner labels is a push to eliminate or reduce some easier-to-understand, but still less-than-desirable ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup and sugar.

“Since every calorie counts, [consumers] will cut back on calories wherever they can and demand healthy and tasteful products without extra sugar and calories,” Corser says. “Consumer demand for light and low-calorie beverages, or those that are naturally sweetened, will continue to grow. Retailers are fortunate since they have an opportunity to provide continuity and great-tasting low- or no-calorie beverages across the breadth of their product lines.”

Premium-looking artwork also can help private label items pop at the shelf, Greene says.

And he agrees with Corser’s emphasis on great-tasting: The overall flavor of a functional food or beverage is critical if retailers are to win over mainstream consumers.

Finally, strategic merchandising also can be an attention-getter for functional foods and beverages, Greene adds. For example, retailers could cross-merchandise a protein-enhanced product with products from the produce and dairy department, offering a smoothie recipe that ties the departments together. PLB

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