The healthy-foods juggernaut

Diet-related diseases, increasingly sophisticated food science and research, as well as better means of production and delivery are combining to create a powerful trend. Dominic Dyer, executive director of the UK Soya Protein Association, offers an overview

Diet is the most important nongenetic contributor to age-related disease. As levels of obesity rise, more people in the developed world now die of heart disease than any other disease including cancer. This has put diet and health on top of the public health agenda in Europe and the United States.

Today's consumers enjoy a greater choice of food products manufactured to higher quality and safety standards than ever before. But excessive food intake and decreasing physical activity is leading to increasing medium- and long-term health problems resulting from obesity, diabetes and coronary heart disease. Public health campaigns across Europe and the United States have contributed to consumers becoming more aware than ever of the relationship between diet and health, and interested in adding foods to their diet that have proven health benefits.

Public Policy and Ageing
Food has long been regulated. Governments took on the role of providing their populations with a safe, stable food supply in the 19th century by outlawing practises that allowed the adulteration of products such as flour with chalk, or cocoa with sawdust. However, as diet-related diseases place an increasing burden on health systems, governments are now developing food and health policies aimed at promoting healthy eating.

In Europe and the United States this has prompted a wide range of initiatives ranging from campaigns aimed at lowering salt, fat and sugar levels in processed foods, to nutritional food profiling schemes, restrictions in advertising of foods to children, and new regulatory controls for health claims on food products.

Another key factor underpinning the trend toward healthy eating is the rapidly ageing population in the Western world. As birth rates fall and life expectancy grows, the number of people over 60 in Europe will increase by 30 per cent by 2030. In other parts of the developed world, this figure is expected to reach 830 million by 2025. As more people expect to be able to work well into their 70's, exercise and diet will become critical to good health.

Innovation and Research
Research and development is a key factor in producing a new generation of healthy foods. As the levels of scientific research and innovation increase, food manufacturers are moving from being simply agri-food companies into the health and wellness businesses. The food industry is now playing a key role in funding nutrition research, and the publication of peer-reviewed research papers has increased rapidly over the last decade.

The mapping of the human genome also promises to revolutionise our understanding of nutrition and wellbeing and allow food manufacturers to develop products tailored to our individual health requirements.

Food Supply and Spending
Today more food can be produced for less capital than ever before. Advances in food production and distribution and the efficiencies of the major supermarket supply chains have steadily pushed down food prices. Consumer spending on food has also decreased to around 10 per cent of disposable income in many developed countries. Health and wellness trends have supported the growth of a new generation of healthy-eating products. Despite being premium priced, these product sectors are growing rapidly and are now a key focus for manufacturers and retailers who wish to widen their healthy-eating categories.

Looking to the Future
There is nothing new about people trying to eat their way to healthier lives. Health fads will continue to come and go, but over the past decade we have begun to see an increasing trend towards healthy eating from both young and older consumers.

The prevention of chronic disease will continue to drive government health campaigns aimed at improving eating habits, which will help to support this process. The food industry will also continue to respond by reformulating products to meet key health concerns, creating new products that provide health benefits without sacrificing taste and introducing innovative packaging to help consumers manage caloric intake.

The diet and health debate presents many challenges for the food industry, but it also offers many opportunities to develop a new generation of health and wellness products to meet the growing demand for healthy-eating options.

Dominic Dyer will present a seminar, titled, "The Future of Food: Making the Association Between Healthy Products and Good Health," at the Healthy Foods Conference, October 4, 8:30-10 am.

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