Functional foods are still enjoying growth, but they could do better if more people believed in them, says Tracy West

All foods are functional - they satisfy hunger for a start, and if they are good for you they'll provide extras such as fibre and essential vitamins and minerals, too. However, so-called functional foods are defined by the British Nutrition Foundation as 'foods with health-promoting benefits and/or disease-preventing properties over and above their usual nutritional values'. Needless to say, with consumer interest in health and well-being at an all-time high, functional foods are faring very well indeed.
The latest IGD analysis reveals that consumers are very interested in functional foods, with one in five of those surveyed for its latest Shopper Trends report having bought a functional food in the past month. And according to Key Note's 2008 report on functional foods, the market grew by 8.3% in the year ending September 8, 2007, to £1.13bn.
The growth has slowed, though - the previous year the category grew by 22.1%.The slowdown is attributed to the decline in the probiotic yogurt drinks sector and a marginal increase in the market for functional margarines and spreads. Keynote says only continued growth within probiotic yogurts and soya milk saved the day.
The research company reports that the major sectors continue to be functional cereals, probiotic yogurt and cholesterol-lowering margarines and spreads.

the taste test

Philip White, trading controller for convenience and wholesale at Danone, says the big shift in functional foods is that they now taste good and actively do something good for you. Danone's two big functional brands are Actimel, which peps up your natural defences, and Activia, which works on your digestive transit.
The yogurt/dessert product Activia has now overtaken Actimel to become Danone's biggest functional dairy brand. "Activia really seems to have captured consumers' imaginations," says White. "I think the advertising helped and the fact that we launched the Activia Challenge, which challenged people to try the product for 14 days to see if they felt a difference." And try it they did and, more importantly, White says they had very few negative responses to the customer careline. "I think the fact that our advertising used testimonials from real people helped," he says.
Latest AC Nielsen figures (MAT 52 weeks to January 26, 2008) reveal that Activia is now a £121m brand with sales up 26% against yogurt category growth of just 3.5%, and Actimel is worth £100m with sales up 1%. The Actimel growth figure is still good when you compare it to a category slump of 4%, however.
White says that this year Danone is focusing on c-stores, to get better distribution. "Consumers seem to be getting the message about our products, and the challenge for us is to get better distribution in the convenience sector," he says.
To this end there is a new 99p pricemarked pack for both Actimel and Activia. This will be available for a total of 16 weeks, spread across the year. The 99p price represents a good saving for consumers; typically the products sell for £1.58 upwards, points out White.

all clear

In addition, Danone is working with symbol groups on signage. "Sometimes it's a struggle to navigate the dairy fixture, what with all the different-shaped packs, different sizes and colours," explains White.
The company is also working on pack formats to ensure that they have the right one for c-stores. White hints at a strong possibility of a new format soon.
Activia is doing well, but White thinks it could still do better: "Yogurt is still a tremendous opportunity in the UK; in other EU countries they eat four or five times as much of it as we do," he says.
Probably the biggest news in functional foods of late is their presence in the freezer. Over the past few years, Birds Eye has worked hard to get the message across to consumers that its frozen foods - particularly its vegetables - are good-quality alternatives to fresh foods. Now it has launched the Eat Positive range of frozen ready meals, backed by a £20m spend.
The range comprises four meals which are all nutritionally balanced, a natural source of vitamins and make up at least one of the recommended 5-a-day portions of vegetables. Each meal also has a natural health benefit stated on pack, such as 'a natural source of omega 3', 'naturally helps lower cholesterol' and 'naturally rich in antioxidants'.
Birds Eye marketing manager Phil Balderamos says: "Ready meals account for 1.6 billion meal occasions and with today's consumers more time pressured than ever, this sector remains hugely relevant. The key to driving growth is to introduce real innovation to reflect changing consumer needs. Eat Positive perfectly reflects consumer trends by delivering against the big three needs - taste, health and enjoyment - in a convenient way."
The four meals are: chicken penne & vegetables (naturally rich in antioxidants and two of the recommended 5-a-day); chicken tikka & vegetables (natural source of vitamin C and folic acid and two of your 5-a-day); Thai chicken & vegetables (naturally helps lower your cholesterol and one of your 5-a-day); and creamy fish & vegetables (natural source of omega 3 and one of your
5-a-day). The meals come in 400g packs with a recommended retail price of £2.29.
Also in the freezer is Wall's new probiotic lolly, which is being launched into its Milk Time range. The Milk Time Probiotic lolly combines the goodness of fresh milk and probiotic yogurt and as such is a great source of calcium - containing 30% of the recommended daily amount. And like the rest of the Wall's kids range, it contains no artificial colours or flavours.
The lolly is part of Wall's take-home range so comes in a six-pack multipack, with a recommended retail price of £1.99.
When it comes to the future of functional foods, Key Note says the ageing profile of the UK's population will continue to have a beneficial effect on the market, because interest in these foods tends to grow with age. It all seems like good news for functional foods, but stories about good growth still hide one massive hurdle: lack of belief in these foods' health claims.
In the Key Note research, 54.4% of respondents did not believe the health claims made by the manufacturers. And a Datamonitor report, published in February, echoes this. It states that despite the impressive growth rates the market faces the challenge of deteriorating levels of consumer trust and confidence.
Michael Hughes, consumer market analyst and author of the study, says: "Consumers are becoming less trustworthy of health claims made by food and drink manufacturers, often believing claims about functional foods to be either false or an excuse to command a premium price. It is therefore essential that manufacturers promote functional foods in a credible and honest manner and continue to educate consumers about the credence of emerging ingredients such as lycopene, prebiotic fibre and plant sterols."

New and functional

The Zipp Vitalize and Slenderize healthy drinks range is now stocked in more than 1,000 outlets including Total forecourts, Gregg's, Camden Food Co station concourse kiosks, Tesco and Morrisons, and is available to independent retailers from Palmer & Harvey. The products will be backed by consumer sampling activity during 2008.
Kellogg's Optivita has new packaging designed to clear up any confusion about its health benefits. Apparently, many consumers thought the product had general heart-health benefits when, in fact, it was specifically designed to target high cholesterol. The new packaging is designed to communicate this benefit more clearly.
Yoplait has launched the 'Calcium every day, the easy way' campaign for Petits Filous, to encourage kids to get their calcium from three portions of dairy a day. The company hopes the initiative will grow the children's chilled yogurts and desserts sector by up to 20%. The activity is backed by a £6m investment.
Herbal sweet firm Ricola has teamed up with Jenks to widen distribution of its sweets in the UK, from specialist health food shops into mainstream outlets. The company has reduced prices and is launching three new flavours: menthol, cranberry and elderflower. According to Ricola, elderflower can soothe headaches and ease depression and feverish colds.
Unilever UK is launching a multi-million pound promotional campaign for Flora pro.activ in a bid to end consumer confusion about cholesterol-lowering products. It uses the message that there is no food that lowers cholesterol more than Flora pro.activ. There is also an
on-pack promotion where consumers can buy two packs of Flora pro.activ and get a free cholesterol and heart test at a Lloyds pharmacy.
Warburtons' range includes the Healthy Inside loaf containing inulin, a prebiotic ingredient which helps your body produce its own friendly bacteria to help improve your digestion. Also available is the 400g Healthy Inside Oats loaf. Oats contain the naturally occurring ingredient beta glucan, a soluble fibre which can help reduce blood cholesterol as part of a diet low in saturated fat. This year Warburtons will be investing £22m in marketing activity.