If you want to get to grips with the functional ingredients market, imagine you are walking around Tesco and planning your evening meal, says Julian Mellentin, executive director of the Centre for Food & Health Studies. "Think about it. What messages work for you? 'This drink can help you tackle colon cancer'? Forget it. Who wants to see the word cancer on food? It's taken 10 years for people to understand what cholesterol is. Start banging on about disease or blinding people with science and it means zippo."
Paul Hart, boss of ingredients supplier Nutraceuticals, is equally cautious. "Some manufacturers go to Vitafoods, get enthused, and think these ingredients are just like salt or sugar, that you can just stir in to your product , add a health claim, and Bob's your uncle," he says. "Well, it's not quite like that."
While functional foods clearly offer the promise of higher margins, companies looking at mainstream, rather than niche markets, should bear the following in mind, he adds. "If you are targeting everyone interested in improving their health and not just people with a diagnosed medical problem, they are unlikely to pay £2.50 for a tub of margarine."
Mellentin conducted a survey for a client a couple of years ago looking at 50 companies making functional ingredients. Two years on, he says, "most of them are still losing money hand over fist"
That's not to deny the 10% annual growth predicted in the functional ingredients market by Leatherhead Food International (LFI) or to say that there isn't money to be made, he stresses. Indeed, LFI predicts the functional food ingredients market will be worth about £2.8bn in 2007. "Far from it," says Mellentin. "If you're in something like fibre, which has inherent health benefits that you can shout about, you've got a very bright future. People want benefits they can understand in categories that make sense, in convenient and attractive packaging formats. That's why probiotics have taken off. They can also offer rapid results, in the way that cranberry juice does if you want to clear up a urinary tract infection."
So what should ingredients suppliers take away from all this? Add some value, says Mellentin. "If you can't show your clients how you can help them connect with their end consumers, you're just another ingredients supplier."
As for the most promising ingredients, he says, think of oats, wholegrains, and particularly fruits, which can be bred to produce high levels of naturally occurring bioactives, or simply thrown in a blender and packaged in a one-shot format (Vie Shots) that's already on course to add £10m in incremental sales to the mini health drinks market.
"Fruit may turn out to be the future of functional food," he adds. "Fruit has a halo of health. The success of pomegranate and the Brazilian açai berry suggests that we are just at the beginning of a period in which fruit products might be about to rival dairy products as the drivers of innovation and sales growth in the global nutrition business."
Companies such as CreaNutrition, a subsidiary of Swedish supplier Oat Fiber, are hoping that the Joint Health Claims Initiative-approved generic health claim about the cholesterol-lowering properties of oats will also stimulate interest from manufacturers wanting to cash in on their "intrinsic healthiness"
Unlike many sterol-containing products, oats can also be labelled as non-GM, a key issue in the European market, says CreaNutrition md Ruedi Duss. Bread enriched with oat bran from CreaNutrition with a cholesterol lowering claim is already on the market in the Netherlands, he says. "There is a natural and logical bridge between bread and the health benefits of grains, which makes it easier for consumers to perceive the benefits."
We can also expect some action in the bread fixtures in UK supermarkets this year following a tie up between scientists at Newcastle University and food manufacturers to produce products fortified with fibrous seaweed extracts, says Jeff Pearson, professor of molecular physiology at the university.
Pearson has been approached by several food manufacturers to help them fortify products with alginate, a carbohydrate compound derived from a seaweed that claims to strengthen mucus, the body's natural protection of the gut wall.
"Alginates are already used widely by the industry as gelling agents and in jam fillings, but now people have suddenly clocked on to the fact that it is a great source of fibre, can be added to almost any food, and can also be marketed as low-GI. It's ideal for bread, as you can increase fibre without losing moisture. It's also great as a fat replacement in burgers and in pies and other products where you are trying to form a barrier between the filling and the pastry."
He adds: "The only problem is that it isn't cheap. It's probably going to add 2-5p to the cost price of a loaf of bread."
The key to success is simplicity, says National Starch's director of innovation design Mike Croghan. This is why hi-maize, the company's flagship corn-based dietary fibre, makes sense to people, he says.
If people want to look at the small print (or the website) they can read about its ability to encourage the growth of "friendly bacteria" in the bowel, cut calories, reduce glycaemic response, and generate a compound that keeps cells lining the bowel healthy, reducing the chances of cancer-causing substances damaging the bowel, he says. But the key message is about health and vitality." Crucially, 'the c-word' is not up there in lights on the packaging, he says. "The key message is not about 'not being ill', but being well and feeling good"
While the more boxes you can tick to demonstrate the nutritional credentials of your ingredients the better, spending a fortune on substantiating multiple claims may not be the best use of your resources, adds Jerry Luff, executive vice president at Nu-Mega Ingredients, a supplier of microencapsulated omega-3 to the food industry.
"There is obviously the heart health claim that you can use now. But two and a half years ago, we submitted a brain and eye health claim that was rejected," he says. "We may try again, but I'm not sure whether it's warranted, as research suggests that consumers are more interested in optimising health rather than preventing particular medical conditions."
Natural Fruit and Beverage Company md Gerry Dunn, who makes the Supajus drink enriched with omega-3 from Nu-Mega, takes a similar view: "We don't talk about diseases. We talk about omega-3 being essential for mind and body. If people want to find out more, they can."
When it comes to your skeletal health, the message that works with consumers is about maintaining strong healthy bones, not fighting off disease, says Christine Nicolay at ingredients giant Orafti, whose Raftilose Synergy1 enriched inulin powder claims to increase calcium absorption and retention. "Communicating this is tough. They understand 'plus calcium' on the label, but we're talking about bone mineral density and gut health. Consumers don't realise that 70% of the calcium we ingest is excreted."
Synergy1 is currently being used by leading suppliers including Nestlé to boost calcium absorption from yoghurts, cheese and milk in continental Europe, while a new range of waters is about to launch in the UK market, says Nicolay.
Infant health is also a big opportunity, she claims, with a recent study showing that daily doses of Orafti's RaftiloseP95 oligofructose reduced flatulence, diarrhoea, vomiting and fever in infants aged six months to two years. This is getting food manufacturers very excited as babyfood is one area where consumers are more than willing to spend extra for high quality products, she adds.
There has also been an enormous amount of activity in the heart health category over the last 12 months, with manufacturers branching out from cholesterol-lowering drinks and spreads to products claiming to reduce blood pressure or thin the blood. UK consumers have already spent the best part of £2m on the new Flora pro.activ blood pressure drink since its launch in August 2005, says Unilever UK Foods mini health drinks category manager Myles Ford. "The product will appeal to 5.3m high value blood pressure aware households."
However, trying to sell these products without harping on about diseases is difficult, admits Stephen Moon, commercial director of functional ingredients and foods group Provexis, which is about to launch its Sirco blood thinning drink and license its Fruitflow tomato extract (Sirco's active ingredient), to other manufacturers for use in juices, dairy products and snacks.
"The technical side isn't hard," he says. "Fruitflow is robust and adaptable, water soluble and easy to mask; it can stand heat treatments and has a good shelf life in most products [six months]. The difficulty is getting the message across. It works by reducing the mechanism [platelet aggregation] responsible for blood clots. That's what kills you when you have a heart attack. But how do you talk to consumers about that?" FM
Food Manufacture is staging a conference in London on March 2, 2006 'The future of functional foods'. For details call 01293 867612
- Centre for Food & Health Studies 020 7617 7032
- National Starch 0161 435 3200
- Nu-Mega Ingredients 01223 393 514
- Nutraceuticals 01933 313 623
- Orafti 0032 168 01301
- Provexis 020 8392 6631