The ever thickening soup of nutritional health messages from government and industry means that shoppers are now more health aware than ever before. And with time at an ever-increasing premium, products that can offer a dual benefit are in demand. Why buy standard bread when you can fill up on an inulin-rich loaf to help improve digestion at the same time?
It is much easier to persuade a consumer to replace something they already eat regularly with a healthier alternative, than to ask them to break a habit altogether, or form a new one.
Many of the first functional products to hit the market were designed to treat a specific medical condition - margarines to lower cholesterol, for example.
However, as time has passed manufacturers have realised that taking a more holistic approach is a route to success, and are launching a growing array of products which maximise health generally.
Dairy products such as cheese, spreads and milks are perhaps the most widely recognised functional products, and one area that has seen spectacular growth in the past five years is probiotic pot yogurts. These products contain live 'good' bacteria, which can help improve gut health and protect against bad bacteria. They can also speed up digestion and reduce bloating, making them a popular purchase for young and middle-aged women.
"Functional yogurts and yogurt drinks have seen phenomenal growth over the past five years with sales having grown by almost five-fold and four-fold, respectively, since 2002," says Müller UK marketing and R&D director Chris McDonough. "The two sectors have a combined annual sales value of £431m with yogurt drinks accounting for just over half of those sales," he adds.
Müller UK is upping the ante on its Vitality yogurt and yogurt drinks range with a no-quibble, full cash refund 'Try Me Free' offer throughout March.
The brand contains a mix of both pro and prebiotics (special bacteria which help live bacteria grow).
Rival Danone Activia is also tempting shoppers with a full money-back guarantee if they don't feel a difference in 14 days. The month-long trial also includes a £1.1m national press and online campaign.
Another manufacturer running an impactful advertising campaign is Yakult. The brand believes that educating consumers is vital to the success of functional products and its recent 'Planet You' advertising activity went further than before in explaining how bacteria works inside the body.
Yakult sales director Andrew Nash says: "Consumers need to be convinced by what health benefits the product offers. If consumers do not understand or believe in the product benefit, sales can suffer."
Nash believes that the functional foods market is likely to balloon in the years to come as shoppers become even more ingredient savvy. "This will present a number of opportunities for food manufacturers that are looking at ways to gain a share of the functional foods market," he says.
The ageing of the population also presents opportunities for growth. With osteoporosis affecting an estimated one in three women, and one in 12 men over the age of 55 years, products which benefit bone health are set to become big news, as are those tackling vitamin deficiencies and diabetes.
Functional products have also been shaking up the bakery aisle. Warburtons produces a wide range of breads with added benefits, such as extra fibre, seeds and nutrients. Warburtons' Healthy Inside loaf, for example, contains a prebiotic ingredient which helps kick-start digestion, while its 800g Wholemeal Fibre Boost loaf provides more than a third of the guideline daily amount of fibre.
Meanwhile, chocolate lovers will be thrilled by the fact that UK manufacturers are starting to explore the potential behind functional chocolate products. It's already a huge market in Japan, but one which up until recently UK manufacturers had chosen to steer clear of due to UK consumers' more traditional tastes, and the fact that
the words health and chocolate don't usually sit happily alongside each other.
One UK company determined to make the link is Prestat. It claims that just two squares of its dark or milk chocolate product Choxi+ will provide all the antioxidants the body needs for a whole day. The chocolate is processed in such a way that two to three times more of the natural antioxidants in cocoa are preserved.
Confectionery giant Mars is also testing the waters with its new CocoaVia product, launched in the USA last year. The product is made of dark chocolate high in flavanols, which can thin the blood in a similar way to aspirin. It's enriched with vitamins and cholesterol-lowering plant extracts
Oil's well with fish fingers
Birds Eye relaunched its Omega-3 Fish Fingers with 33% more Omega-3 earlier this year.
The relaunch was designed to appeal to mums looking to provide healthy options for their kids.
Birds Eye Fish marketing manager Will Hemmings says: "Fish fingers have always been at the heart of kids' meal times, with Britons eating more than one million every day. We know that mums want to do the best for their children and Omega-3 is an important part of a healthy diet."
rrp: £1.79, 10 pack
tel: 020 8918 3200
Mini miracle worker
Swiss dairy manufacturer Emmi has extended its network of stockists for its functional cheese MiniCol.
Minicol has been proven to lower cholesterol when eaten as part of a healthy, balanced diet. The cheese is made from milk which has had virtually all its dairy fat replaced with wheatgerm oil.
rrp: £1.99, 195g
tel: 020 8875 2540
The demand for functional products is also making waves in the soft drinks sector. Richard Abbott, co-founder and commercial director of Infuzions - the company behind the Vitalize and Slenderize drinks - explains: "The sales opportunity for functional drinks is massive and despite the downturn we believe the upward trend will continue."
The functional drinks category is divided into three sub-sectors: energy drinks (enriched with 'energy' ingredients such as caffeine, guarana and taurine); sports/rehydration drinks (containing hydrating salts); and health and well-being drinks.
Vitalize is a fusion of juices combined with vitamins and minerals, which provides 75% of the recommended daily allowance of essential vitamins and minerals. Slenderize is one of the first soft drinks to offer weight management benefits backed by scientific proof. Both have a rrp of £1.29-£1.49 for 500ml.
Rubicon is also enjoying success with its Papaya Exotic SuperJuice Drink which has no added sugar, colourings or preservatives, and contains lutein.
l Lychee juice contains zinc, a mineral known to support a healthy immune system and which helps to keep skin, nails and hair healthy. Zinc is also important for breaking down carbohydrates, fat and protein, as well as helping to improve brain function and memory.
l Guava contains numerous skin-boosting vitamins and nutrients to maintain a glowing skin. It is also a great source of lycopene, a strong antioxidant vital for helping to prevent and repair cell damage and fight against free radicals in the body.
l Papaya contains lutein, which is
a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to reduce the risk of developing Age-related Macular Degeneration
- a major cause of blindness. Research has also shown that papayas can help to alleviate and even prevent a number of health conditions, from arthritis to cancer, due to their high vitamin, mineral and phytochemical content.
l Hibiscus contains a rich supply of anthocyanin antioxidants, and has been proven to help reduce high blood pressure. It is the flowers of this plant that are the valuable health source.
"Consumers are definitely becoming more health aware. Dairy products seem to be the most popular area for functional foods, and two of the six yogurt brands I sell are functional. Danone Activia does particularly well.
"Surprisingly, these types of products aren't that much pricier than the normal variants, so I don't think they will be affected by the credit crunch.
"I also sell a small range of functional soft drinks. I think their sales have been helped by the success of sports and energy drinks, and smoothies, which got people thinking more about the health benefits of certain fruits. Volvic's Revive water which contains ginseng and guarana is a popular product."
Susie Hawkings,Simon Smith Group, Gloucestershire