NEW YORK -- The use of health claims on functional foods is proliferating in response to a benign regulatory climate and a population that's hungry for wellness, according to a new report by the Private Label Manufacturers Association here.
The report, entitled "Product Claims: The Marketing of Health & Performance Attributes," summarized remarks of a panel that convened at a PLMA roundtable. The panel, which consisted of food- and drug-industry executives and policy and marketing experts, discussed the burgeoning nutraceutical industry.
The functional-food business has been growing exponentially over the last few years, fueled by the 1994 Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act, which allows the manufacturers of dietary supplements to suggest that specific nutrients can prevent disease. The approval of the Food and Drug Administration, Rockville, Md., of specific health claims on foods, based on scientific studies, has also contributed to the growth of nutraceuticals.
According to the report, about one third of consumers -- baby boomers, in particular -- take an active interest in being informed about the products they use.
This heightened awareness is having an effect on the types of product introductions. For example, approximately 2,000 new products introduced last year -- or about 10% of all new food entries -- were low-fat or fat free. Also, organic food sales have grown by 20% to 25% a year since 1990, compared with 3% to 5% for the food industry overall.
Among the fastest-growing categories of nutraceuticals: herbal teas, heart-healthy foods and memory-enhancing products.
The panel reached the following conclusions about health claims:
Manufacturers shouldn't claim that their product is "as good as" a competing brand. Rather, they should say the item is "better than," since it's more difficult to prove parity than superiority. Moreover, national brands are litigating an increasing number of cases against companies that claim their products are equal to theirs.
In promoting claims, packaging and labeling have greater credibility with consumers than advertising. This favors store-brand marketers, who rely on packaging for 85% of their promotional punch.
The FDA should be encouraged to maintain and even accelerate its fast-approval process of claims for over-the-counter products.
Future claims will be based more on adding beneficial elements into products than taking "bad" ingredients out.
People with diabetes, and those at risk for the disorder, will continue to be targeted for beneficial products.
Food processors will develop more conventional edibles -- promoted as dietary supplements and aimed at specific conditions or diseases, much like the ever-popular energy and sports bars.
The potential exists over the next three to five years for a major claims "disaster" that could set the claims business back and force greater governmental regulation.