Decline of traditional Mediterranean diet drives time-poor consumers to quick fixes
Around six million people head to Spain every year in search of sunshine, sandy beaches and fun. But as well as being a tourist hot spot, this Mediterranean country has emerged as a vibrant market for functional foods.
In a report prepared for the European Functional Food Net (FFNet), Marisa Vidal-Guevara, research scientist at the Spanish arm of Switzerland-based Hero, asserted that functional foods commanded an astonishing 26 per cent share of sales in the Spanish grocery market last year.
Vidal-Guevara reported that sales of functional foods hit E3.5 billion in 2006 [$5 billion] and are growing 15-16 per cent every year, meaning that this sector in Spain is "one of the most forceful." So far this year, 38 new functional products have come onto the Spanish market.
So why does this southern European state play host to such an important market for functional foods? Vidal-Guevara traced the emergence of the sector back to the last decade when the Spanish public began to become more concerned about health.
Spain is part of a set of countries whose cuisine falls into the bracket of the Mediterranean diet, typified by high levels of consumption of oily fish, olive oil, red wine, and fruit and vegetables (particularly tomatoes). This diet has been associated with low incidences of cardiac disease and cancer. But data from the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Fish and Food shows that already by 2001, consumption of some of these foods was in decline and consumption of dairy foods and meat were on the up.
At the root of this dietary shift is that consumers are working harder than ever, which means they have greater spending power but greater pressure on their time, Vidal-Guevara said, resulting in a decrease in the amount of food prepared at home, hence the decline of the traditional Med diet.
Concern about this is driving consumers to seek products that counter the effects of a less healthy diet. Products related to cholesterol reduction, weight loss and digestive health are particularly popular. Consumers' greater wealth also means they can afford products fortified with functional ingredients and sold at a premium.
From a commercial point of view, companies supplying functional products and ingredients have benefited from a favourable legislative environment because the authorities recognise the role these can play in ensuring a healthy diet, Vidal-Guevara said. Scientific research also has helped underscore the effectiveness of functional foods, and created greater confidence in them.
In her report to FFNet, a forum for companies supplying functional products and ingredients, Vidal-Guevara said, "Experts are in agreement that these foods are not a fashion, and they have arrived to stay in the marketplace for the long term. Spain is in the vanguard of the functional-foods industry."
Julian Mellentin, editor of New Nutrition Business, attributes the success of Spain's functional-foods market to both consumers and food companies there having open minds when it comes to novel products.
"For whatever reasons, the modern Spanish consumer is intensely interested in health. This means the Spanish are willing to experiment with and try new foods and new ingredients. At the same time, the Spanish food industry across all categories — bread, bakery, dairy, juice — is more willing to take risks on innovative products than in almost any other part of Europe," Mellentin said.