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What makes a successful functional food? What fails?


Benecol was the first sterol-based cholesterol-lowering spread, launched in the U.S. market in 1999. It was followed quickly by Pro.Activ, a me-too product launched by Unilever soon after Benecol hit store shelves. These revolutionary functional foods were seen as a great way for consumers to use a food they consume daily to gain a positive healthy benefit — lowering cholesterol.

Both bombed.

Why? In retrospect, the main reason was consumers had been educated that butters and margarines are bad for your heart, but now there’s one that’s supposed to be the reverse — good for your heart? It wasn’t until sterols made it into Minute Maid Heart Wise orange juice — a product with a natural healthy halo about it — that sterols starting finding success in foods and drinks.

Winning functional foods

In general, the best functional foods use functional ingredients that are analogous to the food — so, for example, dairy and probiotics, bread and high fiber, orange juice and cholesterol lowering. Consumers have the highest expectation for breakfast to be healthy and taste least best of all the meals, while dinner is the reverse. This is an opportunity to make breakfast-style foods and drinks much more functional. So you have lots of high-fiber, high-protein cereals, and jazzed-up juices, and DHA eggs, and omega-3 waffles. These all make sense.


The healthier dairy segment today is a prime delivery system for bioactive ingredients such as probiotics, prebiotics, minerals and omega-3s. Because dairy is seen as inherently healthy, fortifying dairy products with other functional ingredients is all to the good. Also, because dairy products are refrigerated, they maintain the shelf life of these sometimes-fickle functionals.


Other winning functional ingredients include omega-3s, with a particular emphasis on DHA, though baked goods such as breads and cereals tend to use ALA omega-3 from flax. Ocean Nutrition signed a significant deal this past year with Wilmar International’s Arawana 3A+, the biggest oils manufacturer in China (and hence the world; they stir-fry a lot!). This deal is also notable because it provides an efficacious dose per serving, 130mg, which is the amount the Chinese government has determined represents the gap between what people consume and what they should consume. It’s a pretty savvy deal.

Omega-3s were also mentioned in the new Food Guidelines (the old Pyramid) for 250mg/day — that hasn’t been mentioned nearly enough but ought to only help drive growth further. To that end, Martek, bought this year by DSM, is a big player here since they own the infant-nutrition market (in the neighborhood of 80 percent), which says “safe” to big food players interested in a non-fish source of DHA. Life’sDHA is Martek’s brand, and they are in Gold Circle Farms’ DHA Eggs and Horizon organic milk — the top player in the organic milk world, though at only 32mg DHA/serving, vs. 150mg DHA per egg.


We should also talk about the other big class of functional ingredients: probiotics. There is actually a wide variety of individual, oft-patented strains on offer, so it’s hard to say which strain is really on top, though from a supplier perspective the biggest companies are probably Danisco, Chr. Hansen and Ganeden.

Probiotics originate in dairy (fermented dairy, traditionally) and because dairy maintains its healthy halo this is still the delivery system of choice for probiotics. It's mostly yogurt, though companies are experimenting with putting probiotics in everything from cereal (Kashi’s probiotic cereal failed) to chocolate bars (Attune Wellness Bars and the NutrAward finished-product winner Good Cacao) to personal-care creams and shampoos.

Ganeden ought to be owning the foods (non-supplements) sector since its spore-protecting probiotic can withstand food processing, unlike others, leaving manufacturers typically to put the probiotics in at the end of processing, which is more of a pain. Dannon got whacked a bit for putting in only one-third the proper dose and not advertising it that way. What Dannon ought to do is to put a proper dosage in there — even 3x the dose would have no effect on the organoleptic qualities (taste, texture, mouthfeel) of the yogurt, I’ve been told, and Activia sells at such a premium and is such a money-maker (last I heard it was a $400M brand) that they can afford it. Seems they allocated $35M for legal/reg fees and the FTC hit them for only $21M so it’s a win as far as Dannon is concerned. But unless they boost the dosage, consumers will lose.

Stop pixie-dusting

And that is a major gripe of mine: So often, if consumers really want the health benefit of functional ingredients, they should probably go with the supplement pill. That’s because food and beverage companies tend to pixie-dust their products, so they have the sexy label copy of a hot functional bioactive du jour, but not enough to really provide a consumer benefit. This is probably derived from the FDA’s writ that you need provide only one-quarter the daily recommended dosage per serving, under the assumption consumers have four meal opportunities per day, but ultimately, what consumer is going to eat four different products every day with a probiotic or an omega-3? Marketers and manufacturers need to step up where the government is failing and provide consumers with a real benefit. 

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