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Consumers look to heal through functional foods

By Clarisse Douaud , 12-Nov-2007

US consumers are increasingly consuming functional products with the intention of preventing or treating disease, the Natural Marketing Institute's (NMI) Steve French told SupplySide West attendees last week.

There has been an increased tendency for consumers to use functional food and beverage in hopes of preventing disease, according to French - executive vice president and managing partner of NMI -, however he indicated the gap is closing between those consumers who also take them with the hope of actually treating disease. French delivered a presentation Wednesday in Las Vegas on new consumer research and trends.

 

 

 

While functional foods and dietary supplements by their very nature should not be marketed to treat disease, consumers may nonetheless take their own such health motivations into account when consuming these products.

 

 

 

As for marketers investing in the concept of food and healing, French drew on the example of Coca-Cola's opening of the Coca-Cola Research Center for Chinese Medicine in Beijing at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing.

 

 

 

"This collaboration will ultimately help us bring the insights and benefits of traditional Chinese medicine to consumers all over the world," Rhona Applebaum - vice president, chief scientific and regulatory officer of Coca-Cola - said at the time of the opening in October. "As the world's largest beverage company, we can add global reach and world-class marketing skills to help promote Chinese wisdom in preventive holistic health through new and innovative beverages."

 

 

 

Given that very large food and beverage companies such as Coca-Cola tend to follow promising trends rather than set them, the link between healing and food looks to become only further entrenched in the consumer mind.

 

 

 

Willingness to consume functional foods and beverages - be it for the maintenance of health, or the prevention or treatment of disease - is widespread among the US population, according to NMI's surveys.

 

 

 

Currently, two thirds of Americans surveyed consume functional or fortified products, said French, and this consumption spreads fairly evenly across all age groups.

 

 

 

"What is even more interesting is that, when you ask the entire US population,… it is as important to Gen X as to Gen Y," said French. "What this means as a marketer is lifetime value."

 

 

 

As such, French encourages functional food ingredients makers to convey to manufacturers the relevance of this trend as one that will stay with consumers throughout their lifetime.

 

 

 

Furthermore, while marketers traditionally envision a boomer woman when they set about to create and market a product, they should not forget men, who French says increasingly form part of household consumption choices.

 

 

 

"Men are increasingly becoming part of the purchasing decisions," said French. "Think of men when you are developing your marketing strategy."

 

 

 

NMI valued the entire health and wellness industry in the US at $91bn in retail sales.

 

 

 

While consumers appear to better understand the link between nutrients and health, some of them also appear to have less of an appetite for dietary supplements, pointing to the potential for functional food marketers to step in.

 

 

 

The market researcher has identified that barriers to supplement use are on the rise. It reports that one in four consumers are overwhelmed with the nutritional characteristics of supplements and which products to take. Another 22 percent indicated to the researcher they are dissatisfied with the quantities of pills they have to take, and 19 percent have difficulty swallowing pills.

 

 

 

While probiotics and omega-3 are among the dominant trends revealed by NMI, it also shows consumers still do not understand why probiotics can be good for you. For instance, only nine percent of respondents could affirm a link between probiotics and digestive health, and only 6 percent understood an association between probiotics and immunity.

 

 

 

"That's a problem," said French. "There's lots of education that needs to be done in this area."

 

 

While Europe has been the bastion of probiotics, the nutraceutical concept has been a lot slower to develop in the US. Some have posited that the notion of 'friendly basteria' was not appetizing to consumers this side of the Atlantic.

 

 

 

Danone has been a key player in getting the message out to North American consumers through its advertising campaigns. Since the US launch of its Activia probiotic yogurts in January 2006, sales have surpassed the $100mn mark in retail grocery sales.