One need only observe the clientele of a typical natural foods store to understand the current wave of fortified foods: Customers browse the aisles, cell phone in hand, perhaps toting a child or two, and compare labels and prices in an earnest mission to balance time, budget and nutrition.
In our efficiency-obsessed society, it makes perfect sense that food makers are jumping on the multi-tasking bandwagon, lacing everyday food products with fortifications ranging from much-needed nutrients to the trendiest of herbs and botanicals.
Why pay the extra price for St. John?s wort supplements when you can get it in that tea you wanted anyway? Salmon out of season? No problem—get those omega-3 fatty acids from enriched eggs or flax-fortified oatmeal. Want to boost your calcium but not with the calories or fat of milk or cheese? Get a hefty dose from that glass of calcium-enriched orange juice.
?There?s a very fast-food, one-stop-shop mentality among consumers,? says natural foods marketing consultant Marty Baird. ?Consumers say ?I know gingko?s good for me, I know I need calcium and I?d like to take some echinacea, but I don?t want to take 12 different pills to get that.? Food companies are responding by finding ways that they can provide an alternative delivery system that is more comfortable and affordable.?
Milk, cereals, pastas and other staples have been fortified with nutrients like vitamin A, D and folic acid since the 1950s, when the government instituted fortification to address deficiencies in American diets and to replace nutrients lost in food processing.
But the practice of adding nutrients above and beyond foods? natural offerings took on a life of its own in the early 1990s as part of the then-new wave of functional foods. In the 10 years since, sales of functional foods have nearly doubled, increasing from $10.3 billion in 1992 to $20.5 billion in 2002, according to Nutrition Business Journal.
The heavy hitters
Few fortifications have been as important as calcium, says Fergus Clydesdale, Ph.D., head of the department of food science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
?Many consumers, especially women and the elderly, realized they needed more calcium, and they saw their choices largely as either dairy products or calcium supplements. But dairy can be high in fat and many calcium supplements can be large and hard to swallow. So food fortified with calcium offers an attractive alternative.?
In addition, calcium-enriched juices offer an attractive option for mothers whose children shy away from milk. Within five years of its introduction, Tropicana?s calcium-fortified orange juice accounted for a third of the company?s total sales volume. Now hardly a juice producer doesn?t offer its own calcium-enriched brand.
Vitamin D enrichment, offered for years, remains as important to public health as ever. A recent National Institutes of Health review indicated that millions of Americans may not get enough vitamin D, and experts with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called for still more consumption of foods fortified with vitamin D. Traditionally delivered in milk and dairy products, the vitamin is now also offered in a growing number of juices and other foods.
The relatively new kids on the block, omega-3 fatty acids, said to improve everything from heart and immune system health to depression, are the most rapidly rising stars in food fortification. Backed by a mountain of research, omega-3s are gaining a strong presence in public awareness, and that means food producers want them on their labels.
Omega-3s are particularly ideal for fortification for a number of reasons: While their benefits are wide-ranging, the sources are relatively narrow. If you?re not in the mood for fish and don?t want to pay for fish supplements, your choices are slim, and with fish populations being plundered, the task of choosing an environmentally correct seafood can be a challenge for buyers and sellers alike. But food producers are rising to the challenge and have now started adding omega-3s to everything from eggs to oatmeal.
Watching the form
While scientists work on perfecting products delivering specific, essential nutrients, marketers are going to town with foods and beverages packed with as many nutrients as they can manage, and it?s paying off?the fastest-selling functional foods of 2002 were so-called super-nutrient snacks and bars such as Powerbar, Clif Bar and Balance Bar. Such products showed a 31 percent increase in sales in 2002, accounting for more than $1.8 billion in the consumer market, according to NBJ.
Coming along for the ride are foods fortified with a plethora of herbals and botanicals—ginseng, St. John?s wort and echinacea are among the most popular. But research on many of the ingredients shows questionable effectiveness, and retailers say savvy consumers are not likely to regard products such as chips fortified with kava and soups made with echinacea as seriously offering any health benefits.
?Most of our customers know that proper nutrition comes from a good diet, and see that a lot of these products are marketing gimmicks,? says Trudy Bialic of PCC Natural Food Markets in Seattle.
?You have to ask yourself, how much starch and sugar are you taking in order to get that added vitamin A??
Goldie Caughlan, nutrition education manager at PCC, agrees but adds that some fortified foods do serve certain customer needs quite well.
?I personally find it ridiculous to see, for instance, a can of soup that boasts that it contains echinacea, and I think a lot of your alert, basic natural food consumers feel that way too,? she says. ?There is, however, an appropriate role for fortification in foods that are replacing a food ? soy and almond and rice and mixed-grain milk replacements, for example. Those products serve a great purpose for customers who want a nondairy milk, either because they can?t have lactose or perhaps are vegans or have other dietary restrictions.?
As technology advances, it?s likely that food makers will continue to try to promote products according to nutritional trends—both fringe and mainstream—with the consumer ultimately being the judge of which succeed or fail.
Nancy Melville is a free-lance writer based in Tucson, Ariz. Contact her at [email protected].
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 3/p. 92, 95