Australians getting fatter on healthier food

By Keiran Jones
Friday, 10 August, 2007



The Australian and New Zealand nutraceuticals market is booming, according to a report by international market research company, Frost and Sullivan.

The report states that the growing prevalence of lifestyle diseases, accompanied by the ageing demographic and the trend towards preventative health, is providing a perfect environment for the advance of the relatively young nutraceuticals industry.

The term 'nutraceutical', or functional foods, was only coined in the 1980s, as a marketing label to distinguish certain foods and food ingredients. It is defined as "any substance that may be considered a food or part of a food and provides medical or health benefits, including the prevention and treatment of disease".

One of the first functional foods available in Australia was iodine-laden bread, available in the 1960s after a government directive in Tasmania, to help overcome iodine deficiency. Now food and beverages are being fortified with a plethora of ingredients such as ginseng and ginkgo biloba, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and beneficial bacteria (or probiotics).

The report found that the growing frequency of chronic lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis is prompting customers to think about their health when purchasing goods at the supermarket.

The most obvious and insidious lifestyle disease, obesity, is an industry driver that will be a large factor of the Australian market for quite some time. Obesity significantly raises the risk of serious health conditions, such as heart disease, asthma, diabetes and cancer. Australia is ranked the third worst amongst the OECD countries for obesity, with around 25% of Australian children currently overweight or obese.

The report also found that the proportion of males surviving to the age of 85 has risen from 25.6% in 1995 to 36.2% in 2005, while females surviving to that age have risen from 45.2% to 53.7%.

The resulting ageing demographic trend is expected to increase need for functional food and beverages to allow the elderly to use food as a medicine to cope with chronic diseases and infirmity.

Possibly as a response to the detrimental lifestyle trends prominent in Australia, consumers are starting to shift to a growing health and wellness consciousness that is reflected in their shopping, with increased importance given to fitness and healthy lifestyle.

Functional foods are getting caught up in this belated push to general fitness, with mainstream media such as television, radio, print and the internet used repeatedly to portray the importance of including nutraceuticals in a healthy diet.

Interestingly, the report labelled "poor consumer understanding of health benefits" as the key market restraint significantly impacting the sale of nutraceuticals, despite the largely government-driven push for industry initiatives and projects. It concluded that "being able to effectively communicate a specific health benefit associated with a product is critical to success in the Australian and New Zealand nutraceuticals market".

So while the report acknowledged the government's National Food Industry Strategy (NFIS) and its grants had helped develop R&D in the nutraceuticals industry, it seems educating consumers regarding the health benefits of the products is the major hurdle facing industry participants.

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