Mintel offers an insight into the impact on functional foods and beverages, following the European Food Safety Authority's ruling on health claims last year.

The VMS (Vitamins, Minerals and Supplememts) sector faces competition from functional foods, as well as growing consumer awareness of the health benefits of foods such as fruit, vegetables and nuts, which are perceived as a more natural source of nutrients.

However, functional foods now face a clampdown on the type of claim they can make, and this restricts their ability to promote themselves as helping to maintain health or prevent certain conditions. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published a list of 222 approved health claims in May 2012, which became effective from December.

Certain well-established claims, such as probiotic and antioxidant, can no longer be used on-pack or in advertising in most EU member states. Yoghurts and fermented milk drinks in particular – which is the largest sector of the functional food market – had used the probiotic claim extensively but this will now be less visible.

The impact of the clampdown on claims by EFSA just on the dairy sector is clear from GNPD, which recorded a particularly sharp reduction in the proportion of launches claiming to help digestive health from one in four in 2008 to just one in 16 in 2012.

Brands have had to adjust their advertising strategy as they can no longer make explicit claims about their products. Adverts now imply benefits through straplines such as ‘Tummy Loving Care’ (Danone).

Functional foods’ contribution to health As part of Mintel’s consumer research into attitudes towards staying healthy, we asked about Europeans’ faith in functional foods’ ability to lessen the chance of illness. ‘Thinking now about your own health, which,if any, of the following statements do you agree with?’

On average, a rather low one in six consumers in Europe’s big five markets agree that drinks such as Actimel can lessen the chances of becoming ill, although it does rise to one in four in Spain. The UK is the only market where women buy into these foods’ benefits to a notably higher extent than do men.

While there is a general rise in response by age, the UK’s over-55 population tends to be the most cynical about these products. Further research conducted in the UK, for example, shows that even those who buy, or have bought, functional foods believe that manufacturers use functional claims as a way to increase prices and that they don’t actually need them as their diet is already healthy.

Supplements or foods?

Supplements that need to be taken daily have an advantage over most foods in that they can easily be included in people’s daily routines whereas there is a higher chance of people becoming bored with eating the same breakfast cereal every day, for example.

Among users of functional foods, just three in ten (31%) eat them daily or most days of the week although older users (38%) and those who drink yoghurt/milk drinks manage to include them in their diet to a greater than average extent.

Among the higher consuming yoghurt/milk drinks users, maintaining heart health is marginally their most important priority over energy, digestion and immunity, so this is where VMS marketers can target these users with alternatives to drinks.

Proving the benefits

Mintel’s Inspire trend, ‘Prove it’, highlights how product recalls and questionable claims have made us more suspicious shoppers, so brands need to be more transparent than ever. Mintel’s research in the UK shows a high level of cynicism towards functional foods, not only among consumers in general but also among those who actually use the products.

Mintel’s consumer research shows a high level of cynicism towards the benefits of functional foods as they know there is often a lack of any scientific evidence of their efficacy. Brands that can show results of human trials will therefore be the ones to gain consumer confidence and custom.

Among those who use functional foods on at least a monthly basis, more than half (52%) have failed to notice an improvement in their heath, while just a quarter have seen an improvement. Lack of evidence from trials or from personal use is therefore a notable risk to the marketer in the longer term.

Given that there is a need to show evidence of certain ingredients for health benefits, VMS marketers have the potential to target both ends of the age spectrum with supplements designed with their needs in mind.

Over 55s’ usage of functional foods is driven by a desire to lower cholesterol/blood pressure, boost their immunity and maintain a healthy heart. Many over-55s claim not to see/feel the benefits of using functional products, and this is likely because their GPs do not record significant changes to their cholesterol or blood pressure results. With this group growing in size and importance in the coming years, VMS suppliers could target this group by providing at-home cholesterol kits or branded blood pressure monitors in pharmacies to help them monitor their own conditions.

In the UK,there has been a four-fold increase in the incidence of the bone disease rickets among young children in the past 15 years. This is caused by a lack of vitamin D, which can be provided by exposure to sunlight. Reduced levels of sunlight in recent years, as well as children’s tendency to stay indoors more than they did in the past, have contributed to a rise in this condition.

Endothelial health

Endothelial health is increasingly being used as a measure of vascular health and a predictor of future cardiovascular events. This can be attributed to its role in preserving vascular tone and blood flow, and its dysfunction implicated as a risk factor in developing atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. The health of the endothelium is progressively being linked to diet and lifestyle choices, which is why endothelium health has emerged as a new target for health claims on functional foods and drinks.

The endothelium is a single cell thick lining covering the inside of the circulatory system. It mediates vascular homeostasis, releasing substances in response to physical or chemical stimulus that control vasodilation and vasoconstriction, and various other aspects of vascular biology. Decreased vasodilation is the first sign of endothelial dysfunction and every 1% reduction correlates to a 12% increase in the risk of adverse cardiovascular events occurring. Certain polyphenols and other nutrients in food have been shown to increase vasodilation, also known as flowmediated dilation,thus increasing blood flow and lowering blood pressure.

Nutrients linked to improving endothelial health

One polyphenol increasingly implicated in areas of cardiovascular health is the yellow pigment in turmeric, curcumin. A study published in the August 2012 Journal of Nutrition Research, investigated the effects curcumin ingestion and aerobic exercise had on endothelial function in post-menopausal women. This was measured by comparing the flow-mediated dilation, which increased 1.5%in both the curcumin and exercise intervention groups, demonstrating curcumin’s potential in halting the decline in the integrity of the endothelium as effectively as exercise does.

Curcumin is primarily used in the food and drink industry as a natural colouring. It does not impart a strong flavour,has excellent heat stability and is stable at a range of pH levels making it suitable in a range of food and beverage categories. These results suggest that it could also be utilised as a functional ingredient, as increasingly it is being touted for its cardiovascular health benefits.

Focusing specifically on its effects on endothelial health, curcumin-based functional food or drinks could be promoted to individuals unable to carry out physical exercise and as a promoter of endothelial health to ‘at risk’ individuals.

One polyphenolic extract used in supplements, MegaNaturalBP a grape seed extract, sports a functional cardiovascular health claim: ‘helps maintain healthy endothelial function’. Another group of nutrients linked to regulating vascular endothelial function are whey-derived bioactive peptides, in particular the Nitric Oxide Peptide-47 (NOP-47) produced by Glanbia Nutritionals. Ingestion of the peptide directly correlated to an increase in flow-mediated dilation of between 1 and 1.5%in older adults. Currently the peptide appears in sports nutrition products to promote flow-mediated dilation and increase blood flow, said to enhance performance and recovery.

Endothelial health new dimension to cardiovascular health claims

Looking at cardiovascular health as a whole, it is a relatively active area, accounting for 13% of all functional claims over the past five years. The number of new product launches with attached cardiovascular claims grew from 8% to 22% over the same five year period.

Maintaining the integrity of the endothelium helps preserve the health of the entire cardiovascular system, as its dysfunction is the first step in most cardiovascular health problems. This new direction for functional foods in terms of cardiovascular care, offers a measurable approach for individuals predisposed to or classed ‘high risk’ in terms of developing cardiovascular disease.

Currently, only EFSA has approved endothelium health claims for use on food and drink. These claims confirm a relationship between walnuts and endothelium-dependent vasodilation and cocoa flavanols, with them both contributing to maintaining and improving the elasticity of blood vessels. This means that for now manufacturers of food and drink products need to be mindful of the regulations around promoting non-approved health claims, sticking to the more conventional all-encompassing cardiovascular health claims.

Endothelial health is also a very ‘foreign’ term to the majority of consumers. This means that clear communication of the concept to educate and convince consumers of the protective health benefits they are investing in in the short-term will pay off in the long term.

This article originally appeared in the February issue of Soft Drinks International.