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Consumers vote with wallets for 'simple,' whole foods

Whole foods can be an easy solution to maintaining optimum health for many consumers. Kimberly Lord Stewart, Fi editor emeritus, looks at the trend for simple whole foods and the extraction methods that preserve their functionality.

The trend for whole foods could push processed, powdered and pulverized ingredients to the back of the testing bench. Shoppers are increasingly looking for processed foods with short ingredient lists, recognizable names and believable health claims – in short, they want simple foods.

Not surprisingly, with the economy still teetering, it comes down to simple foods for simple times. According to Datamonitor, there was a 65 percent increase in use of the words "simple" or "simplify" from 2005 to 2008. The market research firm says the simple mantra is largely attributed to health and a desire to unplug, whether it is food or other lifestyle factors. "Simplicity is the consumer need to reduce physical and informational clutter and complexity in their life to generate time and energy to reduce stress," said Richard Parker, co-author of the Datamonitor study, "Global Consumer Trends, Comfort."

The Food Channel's recent 2011 trends report said it all. "Our values have changed in recent years. We now value different things than we did before the economy slumped, jobs became a precious commodity; and technology turned out to complicate our lives as much as it gave us short cuts. Sure, for years we talked about simplicity, sometimes under names like 'local' or 'social consciousness,' or 'green.' But it was like true simplicity was second string ­– something that we should probably want, but didn't, not really."

The Food Channel said simplicity is here to stay. So what does this mean for food manufacturing, specifically functional foods? It means going back – way back – to foods with inherent functionality. This may be harder than it seems. In the past, the functional foods industry thrived on the concept of laboratory-derived functional ingredients with textbook-sounding names and lengthy acronyms.

Brave new (old?) world

In this new simpler world, it's about removing artificial-sounding ingredients while still retaining the health properties that are intrinsic to healthy foods, all the while providing convenience and a good value. It's a tall order to fill.

"Consumers embrace foods with functional health benefits, but not when they appear as if they emerged entirely from a laboratory (i.e., as medicine)," says a Hartman Group report, "Opportunities in Functional Foods." "The more scientific and opaque the formulation and the more potent the health benefit, the more consumers would rather just have a pill and a doctor involved." The Hartman study points to wider consumer acceptance of foods with inherent and enhanced functionality over scientifically functional foods because they are more culturally acceptable (see table below).

"Technology has effectively helped isolate bioactives from food materials, and scientific experiments show they can help promote health and lower risk of disease," said Kantha Shelke, a partner at Corvus Blue consultancy. "But whether these highly processed extracts and derivatives can ever be as effective as whole foods and ingredients is questionable.

"Whole foods, particularly those from plant sources, carry the whole complement of phytochemicals and bioactives. Many of these compounds are lost during processing or are removed deliberately for the sake of 'consistency' or 'purity,'" said Shelke. "Certain parts – such as the skin, the hull or the seeds – are powerhouses of phytochemicals, but are often removed in many of the commonly followed processes and food manufacturing steps. Logically, therefore, I would recommend minimal processing and saturation of phytochemicals."

Sales are reflecting this growing trend for simplicity. Datamonitor tracked nearly 1,000 global foods and beverage SKUs in 2009 that described the product as "simple" or state "simply," as compared to only 593 in 2005. In general, shoppers see simple foods as ones with few ingredients, with easy to understand names, and though the term is poorly defined, they prefer "natural" ingredients to laboratory-made chemicals.

As shoppers become increasingly aware of enhanced functional foods, it is increasingly important that food manufacturers choose ingredients that stand out for their functionality, simplicity and convenience. In 2010, Nutrition Business Journal cited both inherent health and convenience as top consumer trends. Meeting these consumer desires can be a difficult task to accomplish given that in these simpler times, scientific sounding ingredients and any inference to the term "processed" connotes negativity in consumers' minds. With the right level of consumer awareness and focus on precise processing, healthy foods and bottom lines will prevail.

Naturally functional ingredients

A few standout ingredients like tea, cocoa and tomatoes are worth exploring, not only for their health properties and approval ratings with consumers. Here is a rundown of new products launched and advice from experts on how to demonstrate simplicity and functionality.

Trend: Specialized tea
Pure health in a cup is the best moniker for tea, whether it's green, black or white. George Jage, founder of World Tea Expo and World Tea News, predicts that tea is the next Starbucks, with teashops set to open in every corner and new tea product launches projected from now until 2014. With commercial activity comes consumer awareness, which is why consumers won't be happy with diluted tea products made from inferior ingredients.

Numi Tea, made from organic, whole leaf, Fair Trade Teas, is launching a first-of-its-kind, naturally high antioxidant, low sugar, bottled Pu-ehr tea, said Lara Dickinson, vice president of marketing. Pu-ehr tea is a very specialized tea made from tea leaves fermented for 90 days.

To maintain optimum wellness, consumers must consume as much as 700-1000mg of tea polyphenols per day, which equates to 10 cups of tea per day (one cup of tea contains about 100mg), said Anton Anglish, vice president of marketing for Virginia Dare. Which is why Dickinson said high-quality teas – not tea dust sprayed with oil – and tea fortification for functional foods and beverage products will remain critical to maintaining product efficacy and consumer loyalty.

Trend: Chocolate as a health food
As consumer awareness about cocoa and health grows, the Mars Company predicts that product integrity will play a bigger role. One of the present misnomers is that cocoa percentages are an indicator of health – 65 percent cocoa and above is the current threshold that many health experts tout as "healthy."

Mars said that this is misleading because the health properties of cocoa are more about the processing methods than the cocoa content. The longer cocoa beans are fermented and roasted, the greater the loss of flavonols, which is why sourcing cocoa from suppliers with patented processes can be a benefit when developing a new bar, beverage or chocolate-based functional food. 

Trend: Whole tomato products
When it comes to consumer acceptance of a food as a functional powerhouse, tomatoes are the most commonly consumed pre-packaged vegetable in the American diet (fresh tomatoes rank fourth for produce). Tomatoes may well be the poster child for this concept of simple functional health. 

Though lycopene stands out as the active component, research from the University of California Davis suggests a synergistic effect of lycopene with other nutrients in tomatoes that lowers oxidative stress and carcinogensis (Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007 Mar;61(3):295-303. Epub 2006 Aug 16). As this type of information reaches the mainstream, whole-food, simple shoppers will be more inclined to reach for products with whole tomatoes rather than isolated ingredients.

Kimberly Lord Stewart, author of Eating Between the Lines, is a longtime editor and writing in the functional food industry.

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