Functional foods 2.0

Functional foods 25 years on

Products such as probiotic pizza, probiotic snack bars, high-fibre chicken or fish-oil fortified yoghurt may seem bizarre, says market expert Julian Mellentin, but since 1990 thousands of products like this have been launched – and almost all have disappeared. But that was Functional Foods 1.0. How is the sector playing out now? Some insights into “Functional Foods 2.0” from the editor/MD of New Nutrition Business.

FROM the 1990s until about 2010, many companies put ‘functional’ before ‘food’. But this period is over. Today, it’s ‘food first’ with ‘functional’ in second place.

In the era of Functional Foods 1.0, companies tried to shoehorn ingredients such as plant sterols, omega-3s, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), coenzyme Q10, glucosamine, GABA – to name just a few – into foods in order to market medicalised benefits, such as lowering cholesterol or supporting joint health.

With the notable exception of probiotics, 95% of the functional food NPD of this era was a failure. Who now remembers Tropicana orange juice with added omega-3 fish oil or Muller omega-3 yoghurt? And of those that survive, such as Elations juice for joint health, sales are at a niche level. 

We have also learned that securing a health claim – even from as tough a body as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) – might be of no commercial value if the benefit you are offering has only limited appeal.

The Fruitflow ingredient technology for example – based on a tomato extract – is backed by robust science and was the very first to secure a proprietary (article 13.5) EFSA-approved claim. But the juice brand that contains it, Sirco, sells at an ultra-niche level – because Sirco’s medicalised benefit of better blood circulation is of interest to only a few people. And if you have a medicalised problem, chances are that you and your doctor will turn to drugs as the safe solution, not functional foods.

Avoid supplement-drug competition

In Functional Food 2.0 wise companies avoid positioning foods as a competitor with food supplements or with drugs. Instead the emphasis is on what consumers really want – which is ingredients and foods that are “naturally functional” and make a logical fit with foods.

As a result, since about 2005, naturally functional has become the key driver of innovation in health.  

This is what lies behind the massive success of almonds as an ingredient as well as coconut water (from zero to a billion euro business in the west in seven years) and growing demand for quinoa, chia, blueberries, oats and many, many others.

But how can you predict which foods and ingredients will be a success? They are the ones that:

  1. Have some intrinsic health benefit – or benefits – based in science (even if that science is not strong enough to secure a health claim).
  2. Make a connection to some of the key trends, such as free-from, higher protein and digestive wellness.
  3. Get positive media attention for their “naturally healthy” value.
  4. Have a perception in consumers’ minds of being “natural”….. Read the full article

Related reading:

Delayed reactions and industry in-jokes: The psychology of functional foods

According to Euromonitor International, fortified or functional food and drink sales jumped by 25% between 2008 and 2013 to reach $267.6bn (€249bn). But what does this industry term really mean to consumers anyway and what are the motivators behind such purchases?