Functional foods are defined as food and components of foods that are believed to improve overall health, reduce the risk of specific diseases, and minimize the effects of other health concerns. Last month, we looked closely at the results of the 2011 IFIC Functional Foods/Foods for Health Survey, which found that the majority of Americans want to take advantage of the health benefits of foods. However, many consumers need more guidance on how to incorporate these functional foods into their diets. We talked to Elizabeth Rahavi, RD, Associate Director, Health and Wellness for International Food Information Council Foundation, about the importance of educating and empowering consumers to make healthy choices.
How do we help consumers get past perceived barriers – like expense, taste and availability – to consuming functional foods?
These barriers are not too surprising. We know from our IFIC Foundation Food & Health Survey that people name taste, price, healthfulness, convenience, and sustainability as the top factors that influence purchasing decisions. While taste is the number one factor impacting purchasing decisions, price has been gaining in prominence over the past five years. It is interesting that in the Functional Foods Survey, people are more apt to name price as their number one barrier followed by taste and availability. Americans seem to believe that healthful food has to come at a premium, but in fact, many of the foods that people eat each and every day, might be a functional food and they just don’t know it.
One way that we can help people overcome these barriers is by building off of what they are already doing. For example, in our research, we found that less than half of Americans are aware of the relationship between whole grains and fiber and heart health, yet close to two-thirds of those who are aware of this relationship report that they are already consuming whole grains and fiber for a heart health benefit. In contrast, more than eight out of 10 Americans are aware of the relationship between omega-3s and heart health, but less than half report consuming them for a heart health benefit. These findings demonstrate that not all functional foods are the same when it comes to the barriers that people face. People seem to be facing fewer hurdles when trying to add more whole grains and fiber to their diet.
On the flip side, adding more omega-3s appears to be more challenging, and there may be a number of reasons for this. Certainly taste is one. If people are interested in consuming more omega-3s, but can’t get past the taste of fish, we have to help them find other solutions. Perhaps omega-3 fortified eggs, pasta, milk, or bread would be a better option for these people. In terms of price, fish oil supplements may be cost prohibitive for many, so the marginal increase in price for fortified products may strike the right price balance between food and supplements. Others might prefer the convenience of a supplement.
How can we get more information out there so that consumers can connect the knowledge they have with action? In other words, how do we connect taste with health?
Consumers are very interested in learning about foods that can promote health. This presents a real opportunity. High consumer demand means that many media outlets are also interested in sharing news about the latest food that may have a health benefit. While the science behind functional foods is important, we really need to marry these scientific insights with colorful language and tips that get people excited about the taste of these foods. Why not talk about the nutty flavor of brown rice along with the digestive health benefits that the fiber in the rice may provide or about how fun it is to share an order of edamame (soybeans) with friends when dining on sushi.
Fruits and veggies are overwhelmingly number one in terms of what consumers perceive as functional foods – why are other functional foods so much lower on the list and how can consumers be educated to understand that other foods are beneficial too?
In our survey, we ask people if they can name a food and its associated health benefit. The question is unaided, so people can write in whatever food comes to the top of their mind and its associated benefit. To your point, over 70 percent of Americans name fruits and vegetables, either generically or specifically, as a food that can provide a health benefit; the next closest mention is fish and fish oil at 18 percent. There is a remarkable difference between fruits and vegetables and everything else on this list. One reason for this is our long-held belief that fruits and vegetables are good for you. At dinner tables around the globe, mothers are making their children eat their veggies and I’ll do the same with my kids.
Another reason for this is the breadth and depth of scientific investigation into the benefits of fruits and vegetables on health. Whether it’s research into the collective benefits of fruits and vegetables or the individual vitamins, minerals, antioxidants or phytochemicals that can be found within them, these ongoing investigations reach consumers frequently through the media. During the past few years, we’ve seen more and more research talking about the benefits of fish and heart or brain health and this too is reaching consumers, which may be one reason why fish and fish oil has risen in prominence. Public health campaigns have also done a lot to put the focus on fruits and vegetables from the “five-a-day” campaign to USDA’s new MyPlate food guidance system emphasizing that half of the plate should be fruits or vegetables. Practitioners also rely on positive communications about fruits and vegetables as a starting point for making dietary changes.
While awareness for fruits and vegetables are high, population intake data from NHANES would suggest that awareness does not always lead to increased consumption. Messages about functional foods will have more appeal if they are action-oriented, giving people realistic suggestions that they can easily implement. It is also helpful to give context and choices, tell people why they should make the change and give them a couple of ways that they can meet this goal. For example, omega-3s can be consumed through fish, fortified foods or supplements, so tips can be developed that address each one of these sources.
What is the role of the retailer in increasing the consumption of functional foods, and the understanding of functional foods?
People are looking for information about functional foods from a variety of sources. In fact, one in four consumers cited the grocery store as a source of information that could impact their decision to try a functional food. Thus, having quick and easy to read information available throughout the store could be one way to help educate consumers and even entice them to try a new functional food. Grocery store and community dietitians are another important ally. In our survey more than half of Americans cited dietitians specifically as a source that could influence them to try a functional food. Is your store involved in social media? Using the latest social media technology such as apps, Twitter and chats can provide another venue for promoting positive messages about foods that can improve health. You can also use your website as a hub for nutrition and health messages, connecting health-professional generated articles, with recipes, products and in-store promotions to make dietary changes easy for people to implement.
Click here to read Part I of our discussion on the 2011 Functional Foods/Foods for Health Consumer Trending Survey, which features survey findings and further discussion on the topic.