Marketing for a healthier Eastern Europe

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: European union, Health care, Europe, Eu

The traditional diet in many Eastern European countries relies
heavily on fatty foods like red meat and less emphasis is given to
vegetables as elsewhere. But as consumers become more aware of the
link between diet and health, companies present in the region must
consider how to grab their attention.

Eastern European countries occupy the top 11 spots the WHO's chart of coronary heart disease mortality statistics amongst 35 to 74 year-olds (2000, selected countries). Ukraine is in first place, with CHD causing 839 out of 100,000 deaths of men, and 373 of women's deaths.

At the lower end of the scale, CHD caused 82 out of 100,000 male deaths in France, and 18 of female.

The outlook might look bleak for the region, but in some counties at least governments are introducing initiatives to help steer consumers towards more healthy options. An opportunity exists for companies to use words like 'cholesterol' and 'probiotic', that are increasingly every day terms, as a marketing hook for food products.

According to Euromonitor International, the Eastern European packaged fortified/functional foods market grew by 67 per cent between 2002 and 2005, to be worth €414.7m at retail.

The rate is expected to continue over the next five years, to reach €648m by 2010.

A packet of Bona Vita dehydrated soy chunks made by Czech company Pragosoja and sold in Croatia bears the claim 'contains no cholesterol'.

While this is not a health claim per se since the product does not claim to lower​ a person's cholesterol levels in the same way as phytosterols and stanols have been show to, those from the EU school of scepticism may see this as an attempt to cash in on new found interest in the cholesterol issue. Since when did soy contain cholesterol anyway?

But while soy has been consumed for thousands of years in the Far East and has been moving more and more mainstream in Western Europe, it does not have the same history of use in Eastern Europe.

This could mean that marketers need to educate consumers about their product's health benefits when compared to alternative, often traditional foods - and packaging is a obvious first place to start.

Another company that is actively targeting the new class of health-concerned Eastern European is Raisio, which this year is introducing its Benecol brand of stanol-containing products in Russia, a market with a fierce need for initiatives to improve public health.

But awareness of the health problems that high cholesterol engenders in Russia is low.

"It will be difficult to enter the market because awareness of cholesterol problems in our cities is low. Only a small percentage of people connect cholesterol with heart disease, and many think it only affects the elderly - not people in their 40s and 50s,"​ brand manager Daria Demshina told NutraIngredients.com earlier this year.

Raisio's approach to marketing the brand is two-pronged: to the medical community, and directly to consumers, many of whom are used to self-prescribing therapies during the communist era, when they may have not had access to professions.

The company is already establishing good relations with leading cardiologists and other health care professionals, and aims to educate doctors and nurses about the dangers of high cholesterol and the benefits of Benecol. The company will be taking part in medical conferences, and also placing editorial and advertisements in medical journals.

Demshina said that some awareness about cholesterol has already been raised in the medical community by pharmaceutical companies that offer prescription drugs like statins, but this was limited since such drugs cannot be marketed directly to consumers.

Before launching the first product - a spread - in Moscow and St Petersburg, Raisio has had to obtain approval for both the plant stanols and the finished product from the health care department and from the food authority.

As for health claims, the forthcoming legislation for the EU, although it will only apply directly to member states, will also have a knock-on effect on non-member states, since they import products from their EU neighbours.

Moreover, counties with aspirations of EU accession may prefer to introduce parallel legislation or at least encourage compliance from the outset, since that would avoid making costly changes further down the line - as well as demonstrate a willingness to adhere to standards.

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