The Future is Functional
The modern concept of functional foods is generally considered to have emerged in Japan in the 1980s, when, faced with escalating healthcare costs, the government initiated a regulatory system to approve certain foods with documented health benefits, with a view to improving the health of the nation’s ageing population. By the early 2000s the Japanese probiotic milk drink ‘Yakult’ had become the most successful functional food product in the world, based on a pioneering format that blurred the line between food and medicine – and kick-started the growth of a whole new industry.
Indeed, worldwide sales of functional and fortified foods reached US$247 billion in 2017, according to Euromonitor, and a recent report from Grand View Research predicts the market will total more than US$275bn by 2025.
The shift in diets to functional ingredients and nutrition has created an environment perfect for innovation, which has seen Yakult joined on the shelves by a whole host of food and beverage products that claim to enhance gut health, relieve stress, promote sleep, build muscle, reduce cholesterol or improve cognitive function. While many food and beverage manufacturers are exploring the potential applications of ingredients that are naturally rich in nutrients such as mushrooms, nuts and hemp, others are fortifying their products with nutritional additives including omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, dietary fibre and collagen.
You are what you eat
The good news for manufacturers is that today’s consumers are more open to trying bold new food products than ever before, says Innova Market Insights, which named ‘The Adventurous Consumer’ as one of its top five trends for 2019. Innova’s report also points out that consumers are taking a personalised approach and choosing foods that are specifically adapted to their needs, while highlighting a growing interest in the role that nutrition can play in supporting emotional and mental well-being.
In its Culinary Trends 2019 report, Sterling-Rice Group (SRG) predicts a surge in products designed to provide clarity, balance, memory enhancement and peace of mind. Incorporating ingredients from antioxidant-rich dark chocolate, spearmint and adaptogenic herbs to MCT (medium-chain triglycerides) and other “good fats”, such products fall under the so-called ‘neurotrition’ category, leveraging on recent research in support of the strong connection between gut health and cognitive function.
Moreover, SRG’s review identifies a growing consumer preference for foods that bring new meaning to the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ by purporting to enhance outward beauty and health. 2018 saw the launch of 3,000-plus new food products featuring collagen, says the report, while seaweed and algae, vitamin C, and hyaluronic acid are also among ingredients sought by consumers wanting to fortify their gut lining for an “inner to outer glow”.
The trend behind the trend
With over a third of today’s consumers looking for functional benefits from their food, according to food tech start-up Tastewise, there is a developmental and marketing edge to be gained for those food and beverage companies that understand the most sought-after functions and how they interact with ingredients. The Tel Aviv-based data provider highlights those trends in its 2019 report, ‘Putting Food to Work in the Age of Wellness’, which was compiled from the AI-powered analysis of billions of critical food and beverage consumer touchpoints, including social media.
Most importantly, Tastewise says it does not only know what types of functional foods are trending, but also why. “Knowing that sauerkraut is trending is just step one,” notes the report. “Understanding that it is trending because people are turning to fermented, probiotic-rich foods for their positive effects on gut and brain health, helps brands determine which ingredient will trend next and how they might effectively tap into it.”
Gut health is certainly one function that should appear on the radars of food and beverage firms: social media mentions of ‘gut health’ increased by 42 per cent over the past year, according to Tastewise, alongside a 119 per cent increase in mentions of peppermint as a remedy for digestive discomfort. Natural ingredients such as sauerkraut, dates, ginger and sweet potatoes, meanwhile, are in particularly high demand among consumers seeking to bolster and protect brain health, with mentions of the brain and food up by 46 per cent.
Today’s consumers also want long-lasting sources of energy to keep them going all day, followed by food and beverages that encourage healthy sleep. Natural energy boosters such as peaches, green tea and sesame are all experiencing significant growth, says Tastewise, but by far the most popular new energy source for many is wheatgrass, which is up 265 per cent in the past year. Social mentions of ‘sleep’ in relation to food increased by 28 per cent, with bedtime beverages ‘moon milk’ and ‘golden milk’ up 70 per cent and 74 per cent, respectively.
Fully understanding the key functions driving consumers’ buying decisions will surely help food and beverage companies differentiate between those tendencies that are here to stay, and those that may disappear overnight. The long-term scenario, however, is likely to incorporate an array of functional ingredients designed to fulfil the varying needs of individual consumers, says global consultancy firm Ayming. “The longer-term trend in nutrition will be towards hyper-personalised diets comprising functional food recommendations based on scientific testing,” reflects Ashley Pollock, Ayming’s Assistant Manager for Innovation. “In the meantime, a growing proportion of food and drink purchases will be determined by the brain rather than the gut.”
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