What's a more compelling consumer proposition? An overpriced drink claiming to reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer in 40 years, or a yoghurt that will reduce bloating in 14 days?
Consumers may well be concerned about cancer, heart disease or bone density at a subliminal level, but this does not mean these things are top of the priority list when it comes to the weekly shop.
Indeed, research consistently shows that the average punter is far more interested in immediate health concerns such as poor energy levels, stress, bad skin and a bulging waistline than the long-term condition of their vital organs, says nutrition consultant Stephanie French. "People are tired, stressed, overweight and lacking in energy. If you're looking for a mass market functional food, these are the areas you should be targeting."
The other point worth ramming home is that you are selling food, not medicine, says Lindsey Bagley, who heads up Eureka, a technical consultancy targeting the food and health care industries. "I can't believe how many truly awful products I have seen come to market that are sold purely on the back of health claims. If your product was absolutely essential to the health of the customer, it would be prescribed by the doctor, not the supermarket. Focus on the positives: enhancing energy, inner beauty, mental alertness, and above all, remember that if it's not tasty, convenient and affordable, consumers won't buy it."
As to what they are buying right now, not as much as you might think, says Leatherhead Food International (LFI), which recently completed a major piece of research into the international functional foods market.
Despite all the hype, functional foods represented just 0.5% of the food market in Europe in 2005, and even if they continue to grow as fast as the marketers predict, they will still only represent just over 1% by the end of the decade, says LFI: "There has been a fairly high failure rate in this market, with many products disappearing as rapidly as they came ... It is apparent that functional foods are unlikely to reach even 5% of the food and drinks market internationally for at least 10-15 years. However, they will undoubtedly continue to outperform the food and drinks market as a whole."
According to LFI, the combined value of the functional food market in the five major European markets (UK, Spain, Germany, France and Italy), plus the US, Japan and Australia, was $16.1bn in 2005 if the definition is restricted to products making specific health claims (UK: £935M).
If a broader definition is used to include healthy products that do not necessarily make health claims (porridge, canned tuna, etc) , the market was valued at more than twice that, at $36.2bn. By 2010, the market is predicted to be valued at $25.1bn (strict definition) or $46.9bn (broader definition).
While a handful of ingredients (soy isoflavones, omega-3s, beta-glucans, probiotics, wholegrains, 'superfruits' and plant sterols) have gained a foothold in the market, there is no guarantee that others currently confined to the supplements fixture will have similar success in the mainstream food market, warns Julian Mellentin, executive director at the centre for Food and Health Studies and an expert on 'functional' foods.
He says: "I personally am not convinced that something like lutein (claimed to boost eye and skin health) is up to the job. To be honest, it's one of the most over-hyped ingredients going. I'm not saying it doesn't work, just that you have to question the relevance of the benefit to the consumer. Whether they ought to be worried is not the issue. The fact is, that most people are simply not concerned about their eye health and if they have a particular problem, they will seek medical help [rather than going to the supermarket]."
By contrast, ingredients promising to reduce the appetite, block fat absorption or enhance the fat burning process (see pvii) have considerably more mileage because most people are worried about their weight, he says. "It's that simple."
New kids on the block
As to whether some of the other new kids on the block such as seaweed extracts, cocoa flavanols, lycopene, glucosamine, 'memory molecule' phosphatidylserine and Coenzyme Q10 will hit the mainstream, only time will tell, but there is definitely a thirst for something new as existing markets become more mature, says Neil Forbes, technical sales representative at ingredients distributor Cornelius. "Detox is a big growth area, and dental health could become a much broader category as companies start to look more closely at ingredients like green tea, whey derivatives and things like cranberries, which stop bacteria like plaque sticking to surfaces.
"Ideally, you can home in on something where consumers already recognise the active ingredient, so you don't have to spend a fortune starting the education process from scratch. With something like cranberries, people are already making positive associations."
While ingredients like lutein may struggle to make headway in food products sold on an eye health platform, they could have more potential in the burgeoning cosmeceuticals area, predicts Forbes. "Lutein can boost skin hydration and elasticity: it's a rare example of where functionality can combine with indulgence in foods."
Another approach of course, is to pack in as many active ingredients as you can to get that point of difference, as we have recently seen in the UK with Müller Vitality (combining probiotics and omega-3) and Danacol (with plant sterols and omega-3).
There are of course some dangers associated with this approach. On the plus side, you are giving consumers a product that ticks every 'health' box going in one convenient pack. On the other, if it is merely a strategy to boost flagging sales, you risk devaluing your currency still further by effectively commoditising some pretty expensive ingredients, points out Mellentin. "To me, this just smacks of desperation."
As to whether the controversial Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation will stifle innovation in the functional foods market, it's too early to say. However, a strict authorisation process for making claims should at least get rid of the cowboys, while the much maligned nutrient profiling clause (Article 4) will prevent opportunists in the sector from positioning junk food as healthy simply by stirring in some powdered vitamins to their choccy bars.
It should also spell the end of the road for some frankly dubious products sold at large premiums to credulous consumers, says Dr Gerhard Rechkemmer at the Technical University of Munich. "My favourite is 'super-oxygenated' water. The scientific evidence underpinning these products and others like them is either extremely weak or complete non-existent. It's a product category that endangers the whole future of the functional foods market."
Get the marketing right
At the other end of the spectrum, manufacturers that have spent millions on clinical trials proving that they are not selling snake oil can sometimes take things too far in the opposite direction and screw up their marketing in a bid to demonstrate that their claims are underpinned by sound science, says The Marketing Clinic's chief executive Dr Greg Tucker.
Unless you are selling drugs, he points out, few products will deliver tangible 'functional' benefits to customers immediately, so you are always selling hope. "Even Red Bull doesn't immediately give you wings," he points out. "It's not about giving you energy - it's about making you feel energised, and that's an emotional thing."
When it comes to marketing functional foods, food manufacturers could learn a thing or two from the cosmetics industry, he suggests. "Like most functional foods, anti-wrinkle creams don't immediately make your skin look better - but the act of buying and applying them makes you feel pampered, relaxed and fantastic - I can't stress this enough. Mass market 'functional' foods or cosmetics are not really about function at all."
Techniques such as micro-encapsulation now make it possible to add volatile ingredients such as fish oils to a whole range of foods and drinks, healthy or otherwise. Indeed, you don't have to look far to find firms offering 'antioxidant booster' ice creams or even chocolate toppings containing stabilised minerals. The challenges typically relate to shelf-life, flavour, colour (eg. opacity in liquids) and texture, says RSSL's Carole Hargreaves.
"For example, adding beta-glucans (eg from oats) can make baked goods dry and rubbery, drinks and ice creams a bit slimy and dairy products a bit oaty-tasting. B-vitamins can also taste a bit meaty, and once omega-3 fish oils start to oxidise, you can run into quite nasty sensory problems.
"With probiotics, meanwhile, the issue is whether the bacteria survive long enough to be beneficial. However, there are ways around this through techniques such as freeze-drying the bacteria and 'activating' them later. Basically. where there is a will, there is a way."