The future for functional foods lies in ever smaller, specialised niche markets. Shane Starling considers how manufacturers are adapting to generations of increasingly discerning consumers, from octogenarians down to teens
Foods tailored for ?me? at wherever I am at in my life are described by the new term, I-nutrition. It?s a concept that authors Peter Wennstrom and Julian Mellentin have coined for their vision of the food industry in their book The Food and Health Marketing Handbook. In the final chapter, ?Towards Individualised Nutritional Solutions,? they write: ?The challenge for the food and drink industry is?to move from the customised products for the few and the rich to products customised for everyone, and to complete the transition from product-orientation to customer-orientation.?
It?s not surprising that this trend toward the singular customer has come to dominate the food industry. Consider the demographic that is driving the changes: baby boomers. They are the first generation to grow up immersed in a consumer culture. The first generation to grow up in a time where there is such an abundance of food. The first ?me-generation.? No generation has been more celebrated as individuals, nor had as much economic clout as the baby boomers.
Crucially for the functional foods and nutraceuticals industries, they are also health-conscious consumers. Baby boomers are highly tuned in to the relationship between nutrition and health, and as they age, they are keen to use all their nutritional knowledge and resources to keep ageing and the onset of disease at bay.
As Steve Allen, vice president of new business at Nestl??s Nutrition Division, says: ?The baby boomers are facing the problem of ageing square in the face, and often it is just this concern that functional foods try to address.?
As Wennstrom and Mellentin note: ?The improved understanding of individual nutritional needs as a result of advances in genetic sciences—often referred to as nutritional genomics—is also forecast by some to lead to a future in which consumers will be able to select foods and diets that optimise their personal wellness and resistance to disease. If this does indeed become the case, such individualisation will be a science-based extension of the current trend, which is based on consumer experimentation and media information.?
It?s a sentiment echoed at the Institute of Food Technologists? annual convention last July. ?Not only will we be choosing food based on flavour and appeal, but also based on the knowledge that what we choose to eat may help us live longer, healthier lives,? says the Dairy Council of California?s Dr Lori Hoolihan.
The New Elderly
The baby boomers are not just driving the optimal nutrition train, they are also becoming proportionally more numerous. Many Western populations are ageing due to falling birth rates and increased life expectancy. US-based market analyst HealthFocus predicts more than 107 million Americans, or 34 per cent of the country?s population, will be older than 50 by 2015. Leatherhead Food International observes a similar trend in Japan.
Across Europe, the number of seniors will rise by 20 million in ten years—to 147 million in 2007 from 127 million in 1997, according to Datamonitor. Their annual incomes are also on the rise from their current level of $25,000 in the 50-64 age group. With this income and a less-cynical attitude about the potential of food as both medicine and to prevent disease, baby boomers have been willing to purchase products that target a range of ailments. They increasingly believe wellness can be enhanced via their nutritional inputs. Eye health, cognitive function, joint health, gut health, skin care, menopause, virility and the immune system are typical concerns.
The baby boomers are a peculiar generation, notable as they are for their attitude of entitlement. Rather than making decisions based on an either/or proposition, baby boomers want their low-fat cake and they want to eat it too—but only if it is delicious. They don?t just want foods that taste good ? they want them to fulfil a nutritional need as well. They want their foods to be both premium quality and affordable. They want freshness and convenience. This Age of Entitlement is driven by boomers who feel they have earned ?it?—and their offspring, the Generation X?ers, feel they were born deserving ?it.? As Peter Wennstrom observes: ?Baby boomers feel like they have earned the right to have healthy, nutritious foods. It is for this reason that all the mainstream food companies are looking at integrating health into their central strategies.?
Among baby boomers, the baby boomer mother is important because her concern for her own health and the health of her family—and in her role as consumption gatekeeper—has led to her demanding more from the foods she buys.
So the baby boomers who enjoy a vitamin-enhanced functional water or use a cholesterol-lowering spread, or a probiotic drink to maintain wellness in their 40s are going to be just as keen to consume a glucosamine supplement for osteoarthritis or a lutein-enhanced baked product to ward off age-related macular degeneration when they hit their 60s.
Baby boomers are more image-conscious than their parents, and more concerned to be seen consuming the right products. Datamonitor suggests increased hedonism, an innate fear of ageing and their consumption history combine to make seniors more likely to embrace brands aimed at younger consumers.
?Due to delays in the average age of first births and a growing tendency for young adults to remain in the parental home for longer, current and future cohorts of seniors will be subject to growing influence from their offspring,? says Datamonitor analyst Daniel Bone.
?You must strike a balance between preserving their self-image and serving their real needs,? Wennstrom observes.
The present and future generations of seniors are likely to be more active than previous generations and so are likely to have higher caloric demand, according to Leatherhead. Food formulators also have to be aware of taste and texture issues peculiar to people with diminished sensory capabilities as well as deteriorating dental health that may demand easy-to-chew foodstuffs.
While older consumers are already eagerly pursuing food supplement options—US research indicates 70 per cent of over-50s consume them regularly—dietetic beverages are now displacing supplement consumption on many occasions.
Pester Power On The Rise
The other end of the age spectrum also is heralding much change. While infant foods have long been a highly specialised category, foods with nutritional benefit marketed at children and teens are a newer concept.
Children?s foods have the difficulty of trying to appeal to two consumers at once—the children and their parents, who inevitably make the majority of purchasing decisions on behalf of their children. In the past, children?s foods marketing might have been aimed more squarely at the parent, but research shows children?s influence over their parents? purchasing decisions is increasing. Pester power is on the rise.
Leatherhead says baby boomer offspring also tend to have more pocket money and so functional confectionery, savoury items and soft drinks are finding a place in convenience stores and supermarkets where children shop parent-free. Peer pressure plays an important role here and a brand?s status can be the deciding factor in many children?s consumption choices.
Functional confectionery products are also popular among teens, especially if they contain ingredients perceived to be exotic such as guarana, according to Leatherhead. Teens resist marketing that ignores their sense of sophistication and desire to be treated as adults, so marketers must be careful not to appear condescending while keeping a fun aspect to products aimed at this age group.
For teens, the dominant concern is energy enhancement. For this reason new-age juices, tonics, and energy and sports drinks dominate in this age group, as they do among young adults. Image is paramount for teens and young adults and so a brand?s ?coolness? can be as important as functionality issues, a fact illustrated by the vast popularity of certain energy and sports drinks that are consumed very much as lifestyle-enhancement products. Red Bull is the classic example.
?Red Bull defined the energy drink category by combining caffeine, taurine, B vitamins, glucoronolactone and creating youth appeal,? notes Marilyn Schorin, PhD, founder of Focus Nutrition and onetime senior manager for scientific and regulatory affairs at Pepsi. ?They defined it not by putting in more calories but by this amalgam of ingredients. It?s unique in look, the can, the ingredients; and the marketing to bars, taverns and nightclubs was pretty unique, too.?
Win In The Niches
The age-specific category is a good example of I-nutrition, but it?s just one of many developments on the horizon. ?The new approach is much more holistic and highly tailored to individual needs, preferences and goals,? said Susan K Harlander, president of US-based BIOrational Consultants, at an IFT symposium. ?In addition to age and gender, many factors are considered, including food preferences, activity level, race and ethnicity, lifestyle and environment, family history, and genetic predisposition to disease. In the future, genetic profiling and knowledge of the genetic makeup of an individual will allow very specific tailoring of nutrients to meet nutritional needs, reduce risk of chronic disease and optimise health.? But an air of realism is crucial if the industry is not to fall into over-enthusiastic traps of the kind that plagued the early days of the dot-com explosion, cautions Paul A Davis of the Department of Nutrition at the University of California.
?Both consumers and food producers should understand the full risks, benefits and their associated uncertainties of any particular diet or single foodstuff,? says Davis. ?Efforts must be made to give the individual consumer the respect, time and opportunities necessary to recognise and balance the competing needs involved in selecting a diet. The food industry must maximise the possible benefits, minimise the possible harms, and distribute these risks and benefits fairly and without bias if ?individualised? foodstuffs/diets are to be used to increase health most effectively.?