Editorial: Healthy Foods - Premise and Promise

By Len Monheit

The premise of health foods resonates with marketers and increasingly with consumers seeking healthier food options. Understanding exactly what constitutes a healthy food is another question, a fact not lost on Marion Nestle, the keynote speaker at last week’s Healthy Foods Conference in Baltimore, Maryland. In fact, misrepresentation of the healthfulness of foods might very well be the next trap facing food manufacturers.

Whether the issue is trans fats or other healthier replacement ingredients, all of the major food players are on a ‘health agenda’. In some cases, this is mere market positioning, in others it means back to basics nutrition, nutritional education, both for the public goodwill this brings, but also because it’s an identified market need. Consumers are more aware of what they’re consuming and want these options available for themselves and their families. The success and growth of the natural and organic foods sector, and the interest in functional foods and beverages attest to this.

Last week’s Healthy Foods Conference, examined several case studies and focused in on children’s nutrition and glycemic index / glycemic load amongst other topics. The sessions were well attended (numbers consistent or a bit up from last year) with a diverse scope of attendees ranging from small ingredient manufacturers to the largest food companies around. Also present were small to mid-size traditional food manufacturers (baked goods, pizza companies, small beverage companies, seeking insight, a reality check, and the magic formula to reach the new-age consumer.

If the premise of healthy (ier) foods is generally accepted, its promise is far from being realized. Dr. Nestle is not the only one expressing concern, among other things, at the misinformation surrounding consumers seeking guidance and information. And with the proliferation of brands and sub-brands across all categories, the marketplace is becoming more confused and crowded than ever before. It all adds up to a blitz of messages and a barrage of products, making it more difficult than ever to create and present that winning formula that offers a truly healthier alternative, whether its ‘from the ground up’, or made more healthy by the inclusion of selected ingredients. A key concept that merged from one of the discussion panels was the promise and desire for more personalized nutrition solutions, obviously entailing platform development over the next several years. Companies seeking an entry to the space might consider this platform opportunity, according to some of the presenters.

I’m struck though be many positives after attending three of these conferences. First of all, the market awareness of ‘Healthy Food’ as a priority is increasing and the conference sessions support this theme, and help push this agenda along by bringing together stakeholders in the form of product developers and marketers, scientists and ingredient companies seeking an edge. Everyone is in the same room, discussing the same issues – advancing the discussion – and the possibilities. Each year, the market has more successes under its belt as companies such as Cargill and Ocean Nutrition Canada, enhance their relationships and understanding of food company needs.

Another positive was the fact that each Healthy Foods event is bringing in new participants. Last year, it was the food service sector that seemed the most intent on learning about the concepts, this year it was the smallish food company looking at areas such as ingredient selection or messaging to position themselves better in this marketplace.

‘Healthy Foods’ as a concept are obviously not all about functional foods and beverages, although these products have significant potential to contribute to human health. Any discussion about this subject, though, must include a discussion of choice of inputs, and this remains (and will remain) good news for our industry. Whether its fiber or fish oils, probiotics or plant-based ingredients, there are huge opportunities to be realized by ingredient companies that understand that the healthier foods agenda is an evolution, rather than revolution, and that the small to mid-size food companies are beginning to realize that in choosing ingredients wisely, they begin to create a platform of differentiation. Choosing appropriate messaging and positioning is still a challenge, but the idea of building health ‘in’ has begun. With such potential, it’s a bit disappointing to see only a handful of ingredient companies in the room. Perhaps this underscores a perpetual business observation – not everyone ‘gets it’.

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