Dec 11

The Drive for Functionality and the Aging Population

A downturn in the economy, increasing healthcare costs, an aging population, and mounting interest in attaining good health through diet are all helping to drive consumers' desire for more functionality from their foods. Coupled with an increased desire to take more responsibility for their health, consumers are gravitating toward healthier diets and looking for alternative ways to manage and prevent illness which has resulted in an increased demand for foods with functional health benefits.

Older consumers have been specifically influential in driving the growth of functional foods, not only to delay aging and prevent disease, but also due to a level of uncertainty about the future of healthcare. Boomers indicate they are taking more responsibility for their health because they are unsure of the future of the healthcare system and because they can't afford to get sick.

It is therefore not surprising that Boomers and Matures have been instrumental in driving the growth of products that address their main health concerns. In fact, brands that address digestive, heart, and joint issues are showing strong growth rates even during this economic recession, despite premium pricing. Two examples include Danone's Activia for digestive health and General Mills' Fiber One breakfast cereal brand. In essence, older adults see products that provide a benefit that they need as a good value for the money and are willing to pay for them.

Not only are consumers willing to use functional foods and beverages to help manage conditions, but they take it a step further and believe that functional products can actually have medicinal qualities. Their daily nutritional requirements in the foods they eat rather than having to take supplements. Products such as Smart Balance and Benecol with plant sterols which act to lower cholesterol are prime examples of brands which are crossing over into the realm of "medicine" and supplementation. These types of functional products are setting new parameters for functional foods and beverages and putting more control back into consumers' hands by providing them with perhaps healthier and safer (perceived) alternatives compared to other treatment methods. This has propelled a whole new industry of food functionality and fortification, creating a blurring of supplementation, medicine and food.

The success of many of these functional food brands, however, is reliant on the degree to which the consumer understands the benefits of the product and incorporate those benefits into their lifestyle. With restrictions on food and beverage label claims, it becomes challenging for brands to relay the health benefits of their products to their consumer target. While older consumers are looking for food and beverages to help address their health issues, if they are not aware of how the product can benefit their health, their likelihood to use is suppressed. Therefore, ingredient understanding is imperative to help consumers better comprehend product benefits driven by ingredient content where outward claims may not exist.

While educational campaigns among some brands with specific ingredient fortification, are making some headway, there still exists a certain level of disconnect among consumers. Therefore as manufacturers look to increase the value of their products through ingredient fortification, it should be noted that the success of these products will only be as strong as the benefits consumers associate with the ingredients. Continued education and public relations efforts are necessary to close this gap and will help assist consumers in making more informed decisions based on the nutritional content of products.

As older consumers continue to demand additional benefits from the foods and beverages they consume, their use of functional and fortified foods and beverages is predicted to outpace conventional foods. However, as the boundaries between foods, supplements, and medicine continue to blur, consumers will need strong direction and a guiding voice in order to make better and more informed decisions about which products will best meet their health goals. The functional food industry is poised to provide this necessary guidance and to help aging consumers regain a new level of responsibility in their pursuit of optimal health.