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Functional Foods: A Concept with a Split Personality?

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<p>One challenge for functional foods manufacturers is bringing together credible propositions that also excite and motivate consumers.</p>

The concept of ‘functional’ foods and ingredients with specialised health benefits became widespread in the 1990s, accompanied by highly optimistic projections of the future market size for such products. But are functional foods really a single, coherent category?

Depending on which report one reads, the current global functional foods market value is anywhere from approximately US$2 billion to more than $240 billion.1,2 Such wildly varied estimates of market size, as well as projected growth, reflect differing definitions of “functional foods," capturing very different market segments.

Indeed, from the perspective of scientific underpinning and consumer positioning, it often feels the market is largely split between different “personalities."    

One part of the market is traditionally more introverted, dominated by basic nutrients (vitamins, minerals, essential fats), foods with improved nutritional compositions (protein, fibres, carbohydrate and lipid quality), and a small number of other ingredients where physiological effects are well established (e.g., plant sterols).

These categories benefit from a substantive body of research underpinning causal, structure-function relationships between defined components and health functionality. It is largely based upon, and makes use of, the tools and rules of rigorous science. The quality of evidence and cautious claims should make this part of the functional foods market the most credible, yet it may struggle to motivate consumers.

Another side of the functional foods market includes a more extroverted, exciting mix of the Wild West and health evangelism, where claims are limited more by imagination than science. Despite doubts about efficacy,3 products and claims in this sector often enjoy remarkable success and believability with consumers. Is this because they cast off the modesty imposed by science and marketing constraint?

A challenge for major manufacturers is therefore to marry the “science" and “religion": to bring together credible propositions that also excite and motivate consumers. This means moving with trends—communicating on values relevant to consumers—while adhering to strong principles in nutrition and communication that build and maintain long-term trust in brands. 

Dr David Mela will be participating in a panel discussion on the topic of functional nutrition at the Vitafoods Europe Conference on 11 May 2016. To find out more about the conference, click the link.




3Marik PE, Flemmer M. “Do dietary supplements have beneficial health effects in industrialized nations: what is the evidence?" J Parenter Enteral Nutr. 2012;36(2):159-68.

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