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Naturally functional: remains the king of food-bev trends

Respected UK think-tank on the healthy food-drinks sectors, New Nutrition Business (NNB), has released its acclaimed annual trends report: 10 Key Trends in Food, Nutrition and Health 2015.
This report is the only trend analysis dedicated to the business of food and health and the only one that will help spot the difference between an enduring trend and a fad. The 10 Key Trends report presents a mass of innovation and renovation opportunities for both big brands and entrepreneurial brands. For ingredient companies it can help to make players as knowledgeable as their customers.

In 2015 ingredients and brands that are naturally functional will continue to surge, along with good grains and protein, while dairy is able to take advantage of its naturally health advantages as never before. Old weight management business models are failing, start-ups are carving new niches, low-fat eating is facing a long, slow death and every company that can is fighting for a piece of the snacking market.

The 10 Key Trends analysis uses clear and simple writing and a wealth of charts to help make well-informed decisions about these big shifts.

Key Trend 1: Naturally functional – the strongest foundation for success – King of trends:

Naturally functional foods and ingredients are “the biggest and most important trend” driving sales of food, but it is not a new trend, NNB says. Rather it is “one of the oldest” trends, which speaks to its staying power and influence, according to the report.

This trend, which is responsible for the wild success of Greek yogurt, almonds and chia seeds, is based primarily on nutrition science that shows the intrinsic health benefits of a food or ingredient in a way that is easy for consumers to understand and media to communicate without having to make specific health claims.

While this trend is based on ingredients and whole foods, it is not limited to whole foods, such as nuts or oats. It explains that these ingredients can cast a health halo over a more complex product that incorporates them.

“While naturally functional is what people want, it would be a mistake to think that every natural compound is going to be successful,” NNB notes.

To evaluate the potential of an ingredient as naturally functional, NNB says marketers and suppliers must consider whether it has:

  • science to support nutritional properties
  • marketing muscle and media appeal
  • convenience and snackification properties
  • potential for packaging creativity
  • the ability to demand premium pricing
  • a secure supply chain
  • the ability to tie into other trends, such as weight wellness and digestive wellness

Key Trend 2: Snackification – paradise for start-ups, innovation without limits

Consumers will continue to demand a wide variety of snacks and on-the-go foods, creating a “paradise for start-ups” and a category where companies can explore “innovation without limits,” NNB said.

It explained the snack market is growing because time-crunched consumers consider anything a potential snack, which has opened the category beyond chips. It is also growing because consumers are more adventurous when it comes to snacks, which tend to have a lower price point and are viewed as a lower-stakes gamble than an entrée if they don’t like it.

“Brands that connect to the most important trends and use new ingredients, processes … and messages are enjoying growth and premium prices,” while brands that don’t connect to important trends such as weight management, high-protein or low-sugar are seeing sales fall, NNB notes.

In addition to connecting to other important trends, snacks are more likely to succeed in today’s market if they give consumers permission to indulge by being just healthy enough that people can eat them without guilt, NNB said. Also firms that are innovative and go beyond consumers’ imaginations or create new segments and categories are more likely to succeed.

Finally, while it may seem counter-intuitive, snacks sold at a premium price are more likely to survive long-term because higher price points will help a company sustain low volume, which is inevitable in such a fragmented category, NNB said. It explains that consumers are willing to pay “impressive” premiums for products that match their lifestyle, even in price-sensitive markets.

Key Trend 3: Weight Wellness – market shifts mean opportunity for entrepreneurs

The weight management market reached a “tipping point” in 2014, with people opting to manage their weight using “everyday” foods and free online educational tools rather than paying for weight-loss programs and special foods, according to NNB.

It notes that sales plunged in 2014 for big specialty weight-management brands, including Jenny Craig, Slimfast, Weight Watchers and even Kellogg’s Special K. However, small entrepreneurial brands that tapped into other trends, such as paleo, vegan or raw, proliferated, it said.

Other drivers of the weight wellness trend are the science-supported rise of protein for weight management and increased understanding by consumers of the difference between good and bad carbs and knowing which ones will help them lose weight and which could cause them to gain weight, NNB notes.

Key Trend 4: Protein – powered by “naturally functional”

Protein remains hot in part because it is a means to an end as consumers seek healthy foods that can help them manage their weight and because it is a naturally functional ingredient that is easy for consumers to understand, NNB said.

While dairy products and snack bars have dominated the protein category, new formats and sources are emerging, such as meat snacks, sales of which grew 15% in the US, and protein from soil fungus, according to the report. It adds other novel sources, including algae and insects, could take hold in the coming years.

Not everyone is buying into the protein trend though, the report notes. It explains that while adults in their 50s would benefit from high-protein products to help reduce muscle wasting, many people in this demographic are not aware of the risks. And those that are more likely will use medical foods.

“If you are planning to grow a business based around the benefits of protein you will be more successful targeting younger consumers – aged under 40 – who are sports active and therefore aware of protein and likely to take the protein habit into later life,” NNB said.

Key Trend 5: Good carbs, bad carbs – the steady rise of good grains

Once shunned, some grains are making a comeback as consumers become more sophisticated in their understanding of whether carbs are “good” or “bad,” according to NNB.

Refined carbs, such as white bread, breakfast cereal and potatoes are still “out,” because consumers consider them to be “empty calories, that aren’t providing sustained energy, nutrition or fibre,” NNB said. “Better carbs,” including ancient grains, sprouted grains and oats are “in”, as consumers look for more beneficial carbohydrates.

Despite the increased interest in specific grains, marketing something as “whole grain is not a motivating message,” NNB adds. “Marketing the benefits of whole grains is a tired old strategy that no longer works. While it is true that whole grains have a wealth of health benefits that have been established by good science, and are an important part of a healthy diet, the challenge is to make the ‘whole grains’ message make sense to the consumer so that they choose to buy more products labelled ‘whole grain.'”

More effective messaging might include claims touting reduced carb, higher protein, gluten-free, ancient grains and fewer, simpler ingredients, the report adds.

Key Trend 6: Dairy 2.0 – making the most of dairy’s natural advantages

“Dairy is enjoying a more positive health image as science pushes back the negatives around dairy fat and uncovers potential benefits to dairy,” including it is a good source of protein, it is natural, tastes better when not low-fat and it often has probiotics, according to the report.

Companies are further improving dairy products by launching new formats that are easier to consume or crossing products over from one culture to another, such as with “European-style” cultured butter.

Dairy also can easily tap into the “free-from” claims that consumers seek, such as gluten-free, lactose-free and sugar reduced, the report adds.

Key Trend 7: Free-from – the normalization of avoidance

“The free-from market – and specifically the gluten-free market – shows very clearly the huge power of consumer belief. It illustrates how a market can be created and driven largely by consumers self-diagnosing and arriving at their own decisions about what ‘works’ for their own diet,” according to NNB.

For example, the gluten-free market was a niche market 10 years ago but in the year ending Sept 7, US sales of products labeled gluten-free increased 20% to nearly $12 billion, NNB adds. Other “free-from” claims are far behind gluten-free, but some are growing, such as lactose-free and soy-free.

But if manufacturers want to take advantage of free-from claims they better act fast because these claims likely will “evolve to become a reassurance message – which no longer enables you to differentiate yourself and grow sales,” NNB said.

Key Trend 8: Sugar – the new dietary demon?

Sugar has surpassed fat as the top dietary concern with many consumers viewing it negatively and trying to reduce it, even if they are unwilling to cut it out completely, NNB said.

Half of Europeans are trying to reduce their sugar intake and a third of US consumers are buying less fruit juice because of its sugar content, even though the science is still out on whether sugar is linked to obesity, NNB said. For example, in the UK obesity has gone up while sugar consumption has gone down and in France sugar consumption is higher than in the US, but obesity rates are much lower, according to the report.

There is also limited evidence that lowering sugar content will increase sales, except for children’s products, NNB notes. It also advises marketers to make claims of ‘no added sugar’ rather than claims about reduced sugar because consumers might perceive reduced sugar as not tasting as good.

Key Trend 9: A long, slow death for low fat?

Recently published research is calling into question whether fat really is the enemy of health that it has been made out to be. However, consumers will be slow to change their reduce-fat and fat-free ways, NNB predicts.

“For now, most consumers will continue to make choices based on the ‘old rules,'” either because they don’t understand or believe the new science or they have grown accustomed to and now favour the taste of low-fat products, such as milk, according to the report, which adds consumers under 30 years are much more likely to embrace fat and drive change in the markets.

That said, some categories already are benefitting, including butter, which saw an increase in US sales of $2.88 billion from the first of the year through May, according to the report, which cited Nielsen data. Also, consumption of butter is up 2.54 kg per capita in 2014, while vegetable spreads fell below 1.5 kg.

Meat snack sales also are up 15-20% in France, UK and the US, partly because of the evolving view of fat, the report notes.

Key Trend 10: Digestive wellness – the secret driver of other trends?

Does bloating lie at the root of everything? Is a bloated stomach a bigger driver of consumer decisions than companies realised? We believe this digestive issue is driving free-from and weight wellness trends.

Trying to manage bloating could drive more consumer decisions than companies realise and be a key motivator of consumers who give up “bad carbs,” gluten and lactose, according to NNB.

NNB notes that there is still growth potential for digestive wellness products in North America, but the real potential lies in Asia and South America, especially among aging baby-boomers.

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