Fiddling with functional food

By Janette Woodhouse
Friday, 09 February, 2007

In Third World countries, the value of the market for nutritional supplements is just under double that for functional foods. However, in the affluent First World, the functional food market is greater than the supplement market. There are some cultural differences evident with the Japanese spending almost three times as much on functional foods as supplements while the markets in the US are pretty even.

It is really only affluent societies that can afford to include functional ingredients into their foods. In Australia, the National Centre of Excellence in Functional Foods is focusing on two main areas: foods for appetite control and foods for healthy ageing. Neither of these areas is likely to be high on the agenda for countries struggling to feed their populations.

In Australia and New Zealand, the addition of functional ingredients to a food is a marketing plus and can generate sales as consumers become increasingly aware of the relationship between diet and health. Functional foods are supposed to provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition. They are considered to be any food or food component that may provide demonstrated physiological benefits or reduce the risk of chronic diseases, above and beyond basic nutritional functions.

Omega-3 fatty acids are probably the best known of the functional ingredients. The essential nutrient ?-linolenic acid (ALA) cannot be synthesised de novo by humans and must be obtained from food. The other two most important omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), can be synthesised using ALA as the precursor. Omega-3s are now included in many basic foods such as breads and their presence is used to increase the market share of the products. Consumer awareness of the 'heart-health' benefits of the functional ingredient is high.

Other functional ingredients that are quite widely available include DSM Nutritional Products' Tevigo - a green tea extract with antioxidant properties; Recaldent, which slowly releases calcium phosphate into teeth when it is included in chewing gum; Vinlife - a by-product of the wine industry that has heart-health benefits; and HiMaize, a resistant starch that increases the fibre content of foods.

All of these products have researched and documented health benefits but there seems to be a growing trend to include ingredients in some products that have cosmetic rather than health benefits.

Japan's Eiwa Confectionery is exporting marshmallows that include collagen so consumers can get plumper lips without having to have collagen injections. Microfluid Biotechnolog has released a bronzing water in France which gives consumers a tanned appearance and Danone is planning to release Essensis yoghurt this year. The yoghurt is reported to have detoxifying properties that will reflect on skin appearance.

I guess the message is that careful matching of the functional ingredient with the target market can have the double benefit of increasing sales and improving the health and good looks of the consumer.

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