January 1, 2007

12 Min Read
Healthy foods: defining the category

Functional and fortified foods. Natural and organic foods. Fruits and vegetables. Free-from, lesser-evil or better-for-you foods. All fall under the 'healthy foods' umbrella, and all are providing the greatest growth figures for the food industry as consumers increasingly demand better nutrition. Shane Starling investigates

The mainstream is rarely moved to revolt. It is by its very nature stuck in its ways. Most often, for change to occur, it must come from the bottom up.

So when consumers are learning that they need to eat foods that are better for them, and they are looking for those foods on their grocery store shelves, it is a trend that no food company or ingredients supplier can afford to duck.

And it seems few of them are. In the past couple of years the statements of good intent have flowed from the world's biggest food companies. PepsiCo, Kraft, General Mills, McDonald's, Nestlé, Masterfoods, Unilever, Wendy's, KFC and others have all committed to making their offerings healthier, and the reason is clear: a change is occurring because of a mounting rejection of the nutritional status quo. A revolution it may not be, but tolerance levels are dipping and so healthy foods are heading mainstream.

So what does 'healthy foods' mean? Presently, it is a broad term that encompasses pretty much everything industry and governments are doing the world over to nudge our collective diets toward the healthier end of the spectrum.

Consumers are looking for any foods that might be better for them, in whatever shape or form they might come. They might see a low-salt, ready meal in aisle 14 at the supermarket, an omega-3-fortified margarine in aisle three, a cereal made from whole grains in aisle 11. They see individual foods that meet their individual needs. These might not all fall under a traditionalist's definition of a healthy food but they are better for you than might have been otherwise. These are small, but significant, steps because they represent a sea change in the food industry's pecking order, which has never put consumer health or nutrition atop the list. It has always been about farm yields or producer convenience.

Just as it is hard to believe people once chose to slather lard on bread and call it a meal, some of the ways we choose to fuel our bodies today are increasingly being questioned.

As market consultant and president of HealthFocus Europe Peter Wennström notes: "We will look back and wonder how we could eat products with trans fats and other artificial substances in them. We will look back at this health crisis in the latter part of the 20th century and early part of the 21st century and shake our heads and say, 'How could people be so ignorant?'

"Because ingredients are healthier, a situation is arising where you can enjoy your burger without worrying that it is damaging your health. We are at the beginning of this phase. We are in for a hot 10 years. Industry has to be very pro-active to get rid of the ingredients that have been put in their foodstuffs to make them cheaper and more processable," he says.

Len Monheit, president and CEO of the online nutrition portal, NPIcenter.com, commented on the trend in a recent editorial where he observed: "Whether it's fibre or fish oils, probiotics or plant-based ingredients, there are huge opportunities to be realised by ingredients companies that understand that the healthier-foods agenda is an evolution, rather than revolution, and that the small- to mid-size food companies are beginning to realise that in choosing ingredients wisely, they begin to create a platform of differentiation."

Better-for-you foods One sector slowly emerging within the healthy-foods category is sometimes known as lesser evil or free from, but increasingly known as better for you (BFY). BFY products are those that have removed trans fats, salt, sugar and gluten, to name a few, and added healthier ingredients back in, such as palm oil, or noncaloric sweeteners and fibre.

Lynea Schultz-Ela of Colorado-based natural-products consultancy, A Natural Resource, notes an important demarcation between likely success and failure in the BFY sector. "People don't want to see food as medicine. They do want to see food as helping them eat more nutritiously and that is what BFY foods do. It's a concept that everyone can grab onto. It's very egalitarian and if it means big food companies are making their products healthier then all well and good."

In particular, better-for-you foods are a very modern idea stemming from the desire to make healthier versions of the processed foods embraced so readily in the 20th century. Just as those products were created as a result of improved mass-production methods, so, too, is the advance of ingredients technologies that is allowing their least-nutritious constituent parts to be reduced or replaced with something altogether healthier — better for you.

Rhonda Witwer, business development manager in nutrition at National Starch Food Innovation, puts it this way: "We don't think BFY is necessarily the consumer term — it is just more industry jargon like 'functional foods.' It doesn't matter what you call it as long as you can communicate the benefits. It is these kinds of specific messages consumers find most appealing, not more general terms like BFY or glycaemic. They are interested in what they get out of it. People want to eat healthy in ways that are easy and taste good and are convenient. That is why there is such massive demand in the mainstream population for what can be called BFY foods. If you can get more value out of what is already on offer, why wouldn't you?" Quite.

"BFY is an old idea in that these kinds of processed foods have been around for some time," says Steve Allen, vice president of new business development at Nestlé USA's nutrition division. "Some of them didn't do very well first time around because they didn't taste too good. So with the ingredients and formulation technologies available today there is a lot more scope for success and that is what we are seeing."

Rudi van Mol, vice president of marketing and strategy at the world's largest oat ingredients supplier, SunOpta, likes the terminology, even if it is mainly industry that is using it. "There are so many products that fit into the category. Most of our ingredients are targeted toward BFY foods and beverages. A BFY food is a better food than its traditional equivalent. It is relative. It is all about balance."

What this all points to are seemingly endless options for ingredients suppliers and food makers. Fat, salt and sugar alternatives. Gluten-free. Starch. Soy. Whole grains. Novel proteins. Fatty acids. Sterols. Low-glycaemic. Fibre. They all have a role to play in the BFY category.

Fibre out in front
One buzz ingredient is fibre, which has seen tremendous growth since increased whole-grain consumption was recommended by the US government in early 2005. Its profile has also been improved by the rise of the idea of 'slow carbs' as a better means to control sugar release than those methods many consumers tried and rejected during the low-carb boom.

"A lot of fibre players saw a good chunk of their business fall away when low-carb died away but now that is picking up again. Interest in fibre continues to grow," says van Mol.

This 'slow-carbs' idea is being translated with varying degrees of success in different markets as 'glycaemic response,' which quantifies and indexes sugar release in the blood stream. But the real challenge is to educate the consumer, according to Laurent Leduc, president, Acatris North America. "Most people don't know what GI is," he says. "It is advanced in Australia, so it's possible the European and US market may follow the trend there. But it may be two to five years before it takes off."

Nevertheless, international research points to positive consumer reactions to 'high-in-fibre' product claims, with about 40 per cent of Americans and 33 per cent of Europeans recognising and responding to such claims, according to researcher HealthFocus International.

"The new emphasis on whole grains has encouraged manufacturers to promote products that are high in fibre, and we expect this renewed focus on whole-grain foods to provide a boost to the sector," observes Christiana Benkouider, head of health and wellness research at Euromonitor.

Suppliers such as Mitsubishi, Sun Opta Ingredients, Pizzey's, Orafti, Kerry, Acatris and National Starch are all doing good business in this sector with products from breads to bars to orange juice beverages looking for a fibre boost. Frost & Sullivan put the fibre ingredients market at $200 million in 2004 in the US alone and set to double by 2011.

Japanese fibre specialist Matsutani's Fibersol-2 ingredient, a digestion-resistant maltodextrin licensed to ADM, is being used in PepsiCo's Tropicana Essential's range of orange juice in the US. It can also be used in "other beverages, cereal coatings, yoghurt and fruit preparations," according to Allan Buck, research and development director of ADM's Food Ingredients division.

Another subsector of BFY is gluten free, one of the fastest-growing categories in the US right now. A plethora of flour ingredients has appeared on the market for use in baked goods, with choices ranging from corn, rice and potato to soy and buckwheat, to name a few. Taste and appearance were often an issue for consumers who tried the first generation of gluten-free products, but Corn International has introduced a modified tapioca starch, Expandex, which it claims has the texture and appearance of wheat-based foods, and a texture similar to regular bread.

It's a similar story in the protein-ingredients world where trends such as satiety foods are driving interest, and players like Glanbia and Protient are finding new markets for value-added dairy and other protein concentrates. (See February 2007 issue of FF&N for more on this.)

In summary, as Peter Wennström says, "Health is now in the mass market. Gradually we will come back to more healthy foods overall. They will not be functional foods. They will be foods. Consumers will see these foods as the mainstream."

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