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Consumer scepticism of healthy food claims - another report

By Jess Halliday , 06-Dec-2005

Food marketers face a major challenge in convincing consumers of the credibility of their products, as the second report in a month highlights a lack of trust in the health benefits of functional foods amongst both European and North American consumers.

The latest report from AC Nielsen indicates that in almost all categories of functional foods, the main reason why consumers did not buy them was because they do not believe in the health benefits.

A total of 21,261 consumers in 38 markets took part in the marketing information provider's online survey between April 11 and May 10 2005. They were asked which of nine categories of functional foods they purchase on a regular basis.

The categories were: cholesterol reducing oils and margarines; fermented drinks containing 'good' bacteria; probiotic yoghurts; soy milk; milk with added supplements or vitamins; bread with added supplements or vitamins; whole grain, high fiber products; cereal with added folate; fruit juice with added supplements or vitamins; and iodine enhanced cooking salt.

In almost all of these a lower percentage of the European respondents said they regularly bought products compared to their American cousins. The exceptions were iodine enhanced cooking salt (30 percent of European consumers, 24 percent North American) and fermented drinks containing 'good' bacteria (14 percent European, 4 percent North American).

"There is an opportunity to marketers to position food that has claimed health benefits to be credible and not prohibitively expensive," said Bhawani Singh, managing director of consumer research at AC Nielsen Europe.

Soy milk, however, bucked the trend. Here, it seems, taste seems to be the main barrier to buying, with 63 percent of North American and 46 percent of European non-buyers saying they did not like it.

In North American, more consumers said they did not buy fermented bacteria drinks and probiotic yogurts because of the taste than because of disbelief of the health benefits. The same was true for whole grain high fiber products, but to a lesser degree.

Although the trust issue represents a major hurdle for the industry, according to Tom Markert, chief marketing officer, the market's own development could go someway towards overcoming the objections.

"The functional foods distinction is beginning to blur, as manufacturers enhance more and more products with additional health benefits. As that trend continues, an increasing number of consumers are likely to become functional food buyers without even realizing it."

In Europe, Singh says that more education on health and nutrition is needed. Across the continent, one-in-two Europeans claims to understand the nutritional information on food packaging, but on a country-by-country basis understanding varies significantly.

Consumers from France and Italy were particularly poor, claiming only partial understanding.

AC Nielsen's report comes on the heels of a Datamonitor report published last month, which suggested that many consumers are declining to buy functional food products because they do not trust their makers. The suggestion is that some are still smarting after having been taken in by outrageous claims in the past.

According to Datamonitor, the US functional foods market was worth $19 billion (€16.2) at retail in 2004, and the Western European market €4 billion ($4.7).