It's no surprise that, in this go-go world, consumer interest in functional foods has focused on three main areas: cardiovascular health, brain function and immunity. Anything that allows humans to maintain their forward momentum is likely to be popular. And what a race it's been: Sales of so-called nutraceutical products passed $2.4 billion last year, according to research from Mintel.
While the category has tapped deep consumer desires, growth may slow a bit over the next five years, as market saturation and generalization take root.
“We see it with DHA, CoQ10 and flax,” said Mario DiFalco, division manager of strategic marketing at The National Food Lab, Livermore, Calif. “They're in so many products, from baby food on up to frozen vegetables.”
Indeed, consumers have grown used to having specific health benefits built into their food products, even if the combination doesn't seem to fit. According to Kara Nielsen, trendologist for the San Francisco-based Center for Culinary Development, marketing messages have been extremely effective at tying food and health together.
“As a culture we really don't think about food as medicine in a traditional way,” she said. “Marketers have certainly started instilling this notion of the function of these ingredients, while also using these ingredients and putting them in foods where they don't naturally belong.”
Nielsen's firm examines the five stages of trends, from emerging to mainstream. When researchers looked at functional foods, they found they were moving decisively into the mainstream. As a result, there's a much larger potential sales base than just aging Baby Boomers, outdoor enthusiasts or young mothers. For example, products that enhance cognition and memory are no longer limited to older people eager to hang on to their mental acuity.
“We're seeing this go beyond just memory and mental focus to a much wider audience, not just Boomers,” Nielsen said, noting the introduction of Brain Toniq, a new organic, botanical-based, non-caffeinated “think drink.” The company's website names ideal consumers as “software engineers, programmers, designers, systems analysts, technical writers, academic professionals and researchers. It's a delicious flavor, one that even kids enjoy.”
Researchers note that functional foods are also poised to break free from the dairy category, which has traditionally been home to many nutraceutical products. Besides milk with DHA, orange juice with calcium and yogurt with probiotics, industry observers believe an increasing number of new products will be found in other aisles, from cereals to bread. What can retailers do to accommodate solution-seeking shoppers?
“Supermarkets can print maps showing where in the store shoppers can find functional products,” said Nielsen. “Another idea is for them to put together endcaps displaying products with a specific focus.”