Editorial: The Appetite for Functional Products

By Len Monheit
[email protected]

Fortification or adding functional ingredients to products is a hotly debated issue. A challenging regulatory environment, inability to make certain claims and numerous other challenges including market positioning has left companies wary and unsure about strategy.

Obesity and diabetes are on the rise, health awareness is increasing, there is a trend towards self management (if not outright self diagnosis) of health issues, and it would seem that the functional food category is poised for exponential growth. It would also seem that company resources (ingredients, service companies, regulators and brand manufacturers) would be heavily allocated into this area. We have seen solid category growth, we have seen more emphasis, but the levels observed until now are disproportionate to the opportunities. There is hesitancy for many companies to ‘take the plunge’.

There are several gaps which must be addressed for full potential to be realized:

1. The ‘Nutrition Gap’
This is the gap between what consumers presently consume and what should be consumed for health maintenance.

2. The Translation Gap
This is the gap between science / research and marketing / communications. Part of this is due to limitations in ability to make health claims for foods, but a fundamental communications barrier exists between these groups. There needs to be a platform that effectively translates good and compelling research into substantiated messages in the hands of marketing professionals.

3. The Consumer Capacity Gap.
WeightWatchers has been extremely successful with its points program, simplifying the process for consumers wanting an easy way to know the relative effect of the foods they consume. More recently there has been discussion about Glycemic Index (GI) as a way of assigning relative values to different types of carbohydrate containing products and blood glucose effects. Consumers have also heard sporadic reference to the term ORAC as a measurement of anti-oxidant capacity of certain products. Heightened consumer awareness would be beneficial.

All of these programs attempt to simplify a body of scientific information into presentable and understandable formats. The key is achieving standardization and broad acceptance and then using all channels to build awareness. Several question come to mind:

  • What level of information is the average consumer prepared to handle?’
  • Can this be raised?
  • What forces and resources need to be activated to raise this level?

4. The Consumer Motivation Gap.
Closely related to the capacity gap, this refers to the fact that consumers are aware that diabetes and obesity are on the rise. They realize that there are products, (supplements, natural health products, foods and beverages) that can help. Yet unless there is a personally compelling reason to change, behavior remains constant. And for too large a portion of our population, this compelling reason does not exist.

Many of these gaps are beginning to close, forced by rising health care costs and additional nutritional references and resources available to the medical community and consumers.

Are they closing fast enough to impact health and at the same time allow committed companies to justify their investments?

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