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Mark Crowell, principal culinologist, CuliNex

What makes a successful functional food product?

10-May-2011

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Why do so many ‘functional’ foods fail? Sometimes, it’s just bad luck or bad timing, but in most cases, manufacturers only have themselves to blame, product development guru Mark Crowell tells Elaine Watson at SupplySide East.

Here is a selection of Mark’s top tips for functional food success:

START WITH WHAT SHOPPERS KNOW:You don’t have to go mad with wildly exotic new ingredients. Use something consumers have heard of: oats, wholegrains, fibers, antioxidants, omega-3s, superfruits. If you use a more unusual ingredient such as sea buckthorn, keep the base product fairly mainstream.”

FOCUS ON HEALTHY SNACKING: “The most successful functional foods tend to be for snacking between meals. Avoid main meals and indulgent occasions such as ice cream unless you can really make an impact.”

CLAIMS... LESS IS MORE:Don’t just slap everything on the pack because you can. Not all claims you could make about an ingredient may be relevant for your product.”

INGREDIENTS... KEEP IT SIMPLE: “I think we’ll see more functional food products with single ingredients instead of ones with where manufacturers have thrown in the kitchen sink.”

FIND THE SWEETSPOT: “There are inherently functional foods such as milk and bread; enhanced functional foods such as fortified juices and yogurts; and then’ scientifically’ functional foods that can seem at odds with natural, organic and local trends. The biggest opportunity is in the middle category unless you have very strong data to support claims and a very convincing marketing strategy.”

BEWARE THE ULTRA NICHE: “A shot to calm people before they get on an airplane. It’s a unique product, but it’s also a very niche market. Is it really worth the time and energy?”

CHOOSE THE RIGHT BASE PRODUCT:The base food should be inherently or relatively healthy, and the functional ingredient (s) should be connected to the base. If there is no connection, you might want to look again, or establish one. Take breakfast orange + calcium. This works because of the association between breakfast, milk and calcium. Fiber-rich chips also work because they seem reasonable. Chips are made out of grains, so why not make them out of wholegrains? It makes sense.”

SPEND TIME ON SHELF-LIFE TESTING:All bets are off when you add functional ingredients. Many can have bitter astringent flavors, go rancid or cause undesirable color changes. Vitamin B can cause sulfur notes and vitamin A can break down in the presence of trace minerals. I’ve seen lots of firms get into trouble because they haven’t done proper shelf-life testing and six to eight months after their product is on shelf, there’s a problem.”

Mark Crowell founded CuliNex in 2005 after seven years as director of food product development at Starbucks. Prior to that he headed up product development at Olive Garden, ran an award-winning Mediterranean restaurant in Washington DC and led product development for the Host division of Marriott Corporation.

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