Forget conventional medicine. Many shoppers are replacing traditional remedies with functional foods that are believed to prevent disease and provide relief from common ailments.
Whether the purpose is to aid digestion, ease arthritis pain or increase energy, people have learned that certain food and beverages can help. Consumers are even buying food items that contain health-giving additives to ward off heart disease, diabetes and even cancer.
Shoppers at Publix stores, Lakeland, Fla., are turning to everything from fruits and vegetables to juices and herbs for health reasons. They like these products because they provide a large variety of phytochemicals such as lutein, lycopene, beta carotene and glucosinolates, said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for the chain.
“Other categories they see as functional include seafood, mostly because of the omega-3s, as well as fermented dairy products like yogurt that provide probiotics and prebiotics, and bread or pasta for whole wheat and whole grain benefits like fiber and antioxidants,” she said. “Dry and hot cereals also provide whole grains, and many are fortified with phytochemicals, extra vitamins, minerals and omega-3s.”
Other popular functional foods at Publix include cranberry juice, tomato juice and grape juice; green, black and white tea; olive, canola, sunflower and safflower oils; and dry beans and legumes.
Heart disease and cancer prevention prompt people to pick produce at Publix, said Brous. The reason they reach for fruits and veggies has to do with the high levels of phytochemicals — such as carotenoids, flavonoids and isoflavones — they contain.
The chain's consumers are also paying attention to color. They have learned that eating a wide variety of hues helps ensure that they are getting all of the vitamins and nutrients their bodies require, said Brous.
“Shoppers also look for nuts and seeds because they contain monounsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E,” she noted. “Flax seeds in particular are a big interest.”
Foods filled with nutritionally beneficial ingredients — whether inherently healthy or fortified by manufacturers — are capturing a greater share of the market each year, according to the March 2008 Times & Trends report from Information Resources Inc., Chicago.
The report revealed that of the top food and beverage new product “Pacesetters,” or most successful new consumer packaged good brands for 2006 and 2007, 28% contained added nutrients such as soy, calcium and vitamins. Nineteen percent had high fiber or whole-grain contents, 15% had antioxidants and 10% were sources of protein or deemed energy enhancers.
Sheila McCusker, editor of Times & Trends, expects the functional food trend will gain significant momentum in the coming year.
“Consumers are increasingly viewing food and beverages as health solutions,” she said. “Products delivering disease management and prevention benefits will be far more prevalent over the next few years, and increased availability will further fuel changes in consumer attitudes and approach to diet. Antioxidants, immunity-boosting ingredients, cholesterol-lowering ingredients and digestive aids will be in high demand.”
As consumers hear about the remedial benefits of certain consumables, most are turning to retailers for guidance.
So many shoppers at Big Y stores were seeking functional foods that the Springfield, Mass.-based retailer decided to hire a dietitian in 2005 to manage the influx of questions as well as its Living Well Eating Smart program.
The new hire, Carrie Taylor, quickly tuned in to consumer health concerns. She noted which ailments worried them the most and began compiling lists of foods that could help ward off such problems.
“Diabetes is the most common condition that people try to manage using functional foods, and heart disease is next,” said Taylor. “They are also concerned about cholesterol, digestion and cancer prevention.”
In a newsletter distributed six times annually, Taylor promotes foods made with whole grains for diabetics wanting to control blood sugar levels. Items rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals — tomatoes, blueberries, açai berries and broccoli — are recommended for their cancer-prevention qualities.
She has also promoted Healthy Dairy yogurt smoothies and Promise Super Shots mini yogurt smoothies because they contain probiotics, which are known to deter digestion dilemmas. Later this year, Taylor plans to push Benecol butter spread with plant sterols in the Living Well Eating Smart newsletter.
The newsletters are available on endcaps in the retailer's stores all year long. Every two weeks, Taylor also inserts a list of functional foods into in-store circulars.
In-store voice-overs repeat the list, reinforcing the theme. The retailer also hangs Living Well Eating Smart signs next to participating brands that qualify as functional foods.
Programs like this are a step in the right direction, said Gichele Adams, associate consultant, Willard Bishop, Barrington, Ill. But most consumers still don't understand functional foods well enough to make informed decisions, despite retailers' best efforts to educate them, she said.
“The average shopper does not know what phytochemicals or antioxidants really do for them, or how to best use functional foods for their specific health needs,” noted Adams. “Helping someone understand that phytonutrients have anti-inflammatory benefits and may help boost fiber intake is a key message, but signage and literature detailing this information often misses the mark, because most people simply don't see them.”
Some retailers feel stuck. While they might have strong educational programs and a desire to offer more data, they must walk a fine line between teaching and breaking the law.
Publix shies away from ailment-specific signage or displays due to the strict U.S. Food and Drug Administration labeling laws and regulations pertaining to food and beverages with health benefits, said Brous.
“The regulations severely restrict most messages regarding food, supplements and health claims,” she said. “That is why in Publix GreenWise Markets stores you will see ‘heart health’ and ‘women's health’ but nothing that specifically says ‘prevent cancer’ or ‘diabetic,’ because those names are linked to a disease state.”
Educating Through Events
Although shoppers may fail to notice signage, literature and other educational media, in-store events are effective attention-getters.
Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, has featured functional foods in this manner. In February, the retailer hosted a heart-healthy event in its stores, complete with displays filled with packaged goods deemed good for the heart.
According to Jason Schnuck, event marketing manager for the chain, American Heart Month introduced shoppers to the thousands of good-for-your-heart products carried there year-round.
“Smart choices such as whole grains, lean meats, fish, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, and packaged foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium were easy to locate because of the special in-store displays we had that month,” he said.
Produce was also promoted during the event. Fresh fruits and vegetables were featured as foods central to a low-fat, low-calorie diet that can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
The more retailers do to educate consumers, the more they will buy functional foods, said Jim Wisner, president, Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill.
“We did a study related to health and wellness in 2007 and learned that more than 80% of shoppers said they would change their purchase behavior if they had more information about products,” he said. “They want to know about fat content, calories, functional benefits and anything pertaining to the nutritional value of foods.”
Wisner expects shoppers to demand even more in-depth information about the foods they consume in the future, and functional foods in particular.
Ted Taft, managing director, Meridian Consulting, Westport, Conn., agreed.
“The industry is still very early in its life cycle in terms of learning how to promote these types of foods to their shoppers,” he said. “At-shelf signage is the most direct way to do this at the moment, but that has its limitations.”