01 December 2015
Despite vigorous efforts to reduce U.S. health care spending, it's expected to hit $3.8 trillion sometime in 2014, notes commentary at Forbes.com that cites new Deloitte research. The real issue is that this is significantly higher than figures from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that focus more on spending growth than overall spending levels.

The big sticking point, notes Forbes.com health care contributor Dan Munro, “is simply that we’re not making any headway on one of the most important healthcare measurements of all -cost.”

But there is one simple -and ostensibly effective- way to potentially cut costs: functional foods. They can offer consumers a broad range of range of benefits, from fiber and probiotics that aid digestion to nutritional enhancements that can help treat or alleviate symptoms of various conditions and diseases. So, for many, functional foods can improve general heath and wellbeing. And for some, they can be a legitimate alternative to medications.

Research backs this up. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a functional food is “a food that provides additional health benefits that may reduce disease risk and/or promote good health.”

But this is nothing new. Age-old folk remedies tout good-for-you foods, such as cranberries, chicken soup and citrus fruits. Cranberries have long been known to maintain urinary tract health, while chicken soup and citrus fruits counteract cold symptoms. Now, we call these functional foods and consumers seek them out precisely because of their increased emphasis on preventive health care and interest in natural and organic foods.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, functional food types include:
 
  • “Conventional foods, such as grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts.
  • Modified foods, such as yogurt, cereals and orange juice.
  • Medical foods, such as special nutritional formulations for certain health conditions.
  • Foods for special dietary use, such as infant formula and hypoallergenic foods.”
And these foods can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, aid digestion and sleep, boost immunity and metabolism and enhance energy. They can also serve as alternatives for thirst, as in low-sugar and non-dairy beverages.

In fact, consumer interest in functional foods is so strong that the global nutraceuticals market grew to $259 billion as of 2012, notes New Delhi-based consultancy Ken Research, and analysts project the U.S. market to be worth $8.62 billion by next year, according to a report by Transparency Markets Research. In the U.S., most of the growth is tied to consumers buying energy drinks and fortified dairy products. Much of the global growth will come from Asia and Latin America. Regardless, it’s important to know that the worldwide functional foods market’s growth is outpacing that of processed foods as a whole.

But the benefits of functional foods aren’t limited to consumers. Raw materials producers also reap advantages, such as crop diversification and rural development, notes Transparency Markets Research.
Companies interested in producing functional foods should consider the following:
  1. Design foods that play to special needs. Researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands made this recommendation, citing a strong need among people with allergies. Other options the researchers site include foods that focus on weight loss and impart a full feeling; are able to release concentrations of nutrients designed to improve health; or can have a beneficial impact on intestinal flora to aid digestion. 
     
  2. Pay attention to what consumers are asking for. This means understanding what each generational group, including Baby Boomers, Millennials and Tweens, wants and striving to meet those demands. Companies that ignore such data risk developing a product failure, notes Peter Wennstrom, president of the Healthy Marketing Team. 
     
  3. Market to athletes at all levels. Casual athletes and recreational players will appreciate functional foods as much as body builders and marathoners, notes the Institute for Food Technologists in its 2014 Functional Foods Trends.
     
  4. Focus on Millennials. IFT also noted that this generation uses food to relieve fatigue and maintain mental sharpness. Frequent label-readers, Millennials seek natural, organic and fresh options and are willing to pay more for them.
     
Learn more about functional foods in this Huffington Post blog.

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