What's New For Functional Foods In 2002?

The Leatherhead Food Research Association is one of the world's leading research centres for the food and drinks industry. John Young, director of information, casts his eye over likely developments in the coming year.

Functional foods development in 2002 is likely to follow trends that began in 2001. That said, there are always surprises, and I will premise some of them here. But before we look forward, let's take a quick look back.

The Year Gone By
Despite mixed fortunes for some major functional foods brands in 2001, the global food industry demonstrated incredible appetite and imagination in its quest to develop this multibillion-dollar category. In previous years the dairy category has been the major focus of functional foods activity, but 2001 was notable for a surge in activity and creativity across all food categories. Just a few of the many examples reflecting this trend were omega-3-enriched desserts from Spain; German probiotic biscuits; cholesterol-lowering sausages from Finland and cholesterol-lowering juices from the US; and 'smart chocolate,' also from the US.

In the United Kingdom, arguably one of the most significant and creative launches of 2001 was the '&more' product range from the major multiple retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S). The '&more' line of heart-benefit foods is notable for two main reasons: the wide range of products (20 commonly eaten foods and drinks), and a formulation strategy that reflects the multifaceted nature of heart disease.

Central to the M&S formulation strategy was isolated soya protein from Dupont Protein Technologies, based in St. Louis, Missouri, which research has shown lowers total blood cholesterol levels. At the time of launch, M&S noted that the development strategy for the "&more" line took into account a number of nutritional and biochemical factors associated with heart health. For example, betaine was incorporated because it is a methyl group donor that can lower elevated blood levels of homocysteine. Vitamins C and E are used because they work together to reduce low-density lipoprotein oxidation. All in all, the M&S line is a definite contender for the most innovative functional food development in 2001.

Similarly, Unilever would be a strong contender for manufacturer of the most commercially successful functional food product. Sold under a variety of brand names around the world—branded Flora pro.activ in the UK and Australia—Unilever's phytosterol-containing, cholesterol-lowering spread has already clocked up sales well in excess of $100 million per annum. The company's success presents a strong case for basing a functional food strategy on integrating functional ingredients into established health brands.

Heart and gut health continued to be the prime focus for functional foods development in 2001, leading to global markets estimated at $3.4 billion and $3.5 billion, respectively, according to recent research by Leatherhead Food Research Association (LFRA). However, significant activity also was evident in the areas of bone health, physical performance and cognitive performance.

Looking Ahead
The focus of functional foods development in 2002, and probably for the next five years, will be on products targeted at heart health, gut and bone health, performance and general well-being. The emergence of new approaches and concepts in product development that began in 2001 will gather pace in 2002. Most significant among these will be the emergence of 'gender-specific' functional foods—products formulated to take into account the different nutritional requirements and disease profiles of men and women. The growing awareness that nutritional requirements change throughout life could also lead to the emergence of functional foods for specific lifestages—for example, childhood, teenage, midlife and retirement. Whether this trend will gather momentum in 2002 is difficult to say, but it would not be surprising.

Some of the world's leading cereal manufacturers launched breakfast cereals for women, one example being Harmony from General Mills. Launched in North America, Harmony is a low-fat nutritional cereal for women that is fortified with calcium, antioxidants, soya, iron and folic acid.

On the other side of the world, Vital Woman, an Australian functional foods company, has introduced SOyVITAL, a daily soya bar for women, and SOyACTIVE, a zero-cholesterol daily soya bar for men. Vital Woman's Web site (www.vitalwoman.com.au) emphasises the importance of soya isoflavones for women's health and the cholesterol-lowering properties of soya foods for male heart health.

Further developments are likely following the continuing success of probiotic dairy drinks such as Yakult and Actimel. Greater activity in nondairy variants is forecast, with fruit juice likely to be a key platform. Complex probiotic drinks fortified with a variety of ingredients, for example prebiotics and antioxidant vitamins, could become more commonplace outside Japan.

The use of prebiotics and probiotics in general also will increase, finding application in an ever-broader range of product categories. Bakery and cereal products are also likely to be a key focus of attention.

With the growing recognition that many disease states are multifactorial, more complex functional foods formulations along the lines of the '&more' range could well gather momentum in 2002.

Another growing trend is functional foods targeted at 'second division' health concerns such as eye health and urinary tract infections. The considerable upsurge of interest in the link between lutein and eye health makes the development of foods for eye health maintenance a distinct possibility.

The patent and science literature points to other likely movements. Patent activity in bioactive peptides could well signal the introduction of more antihypertensive foods such as Evolus from the Finnish company Valio. Other patents from some of the world's leading food and ingredients producers include:

  • Foods to stimulate nitric oxide production and reduce blood pressure have been patented by Mars. The products contain cocoa and/or nut procyanidins in combination with arginine.

  • Van den Bergh Foods, a division of Unilever, has patented a table spread containing conjugated linoleic acid. Animal tests indicate that consumption of the spread lowers LDL cholesterol levels.

  • Forbes Medi-Tech has patented compositions that contain phytosterols, phytostanols and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular diseases. These components are said to have a synergistic effect on cholesterol and triglyceride metabolism.

These are just a few of the thousands of patents related to existing and novel dietary constituents for health maintenance. This certainly signals bright prospects for continuing innovation in functional foods in 2002 and beyond.

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