Consumers have been purchasing foods, ingredients, and beverages that provide added health benefits since the 1980s, but these “functional foods” have gained prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic, when homebound people began cooking more often and seeking healthier ingredients.
Functional foods claim to offer a broad array of benefits, including stress reduction, anti-aging, pain relief, heart health, brain function, and increased energy. Almost any food in the grocery store that offers more than the recommended dietary allowance of a nutrient could be considered a functional food.
More than half of consumers say they are eating more healthily than before the pandemic, and 63% of grocery shoppers regularly buy foods for specific health benefits, says A. Elizabeth Sloan, PhD, CEO and owner of California-based nutraceutical consultancy firm Sloan Trends. Consumers are particularly interested in vitamins and minerals, immunity-boosting products, pediatric health, and support for individuals at higher risk for getting more severe COVID-19, such as those with hypertension, obesity, or diabetes.
COVID-19 reminded consumers about the importance of taking specific nutrients, especially those related to immunity, driving consumers to look for more fortified foods.—A. Elizabeth Sloan, PhD
In 2019, immunity ranked 18th among the health issues of greatest concern, but now it ranks third, Dr. Sloan says. Sales of products with an immune claim, whether they be fresh, frozen, or refrigerated, rose 21% in 2020. In the second half of 2020, foods and beverages that help control diabetes rose 14%, obesity 13%, and hypertension 9%, she says, quoting statistics from IRI, a data research firm based in Chicago.
“COVID-19 reminded consumers about the importance of taking specific nutrients, especially those related to immunity, driving consumers to look for more fortified foods,” Dr. Sloan says. Fortified foods, which contain added nutrients, are considered functional foods, whereas enriched foods, which only add back original ingredients removed during processing, are not.
The demand for fortified foods runs counter to a marketing trend over the last few years. Food marketers had pursued a naturally healthy formulation strategy and did not label specific nutrients or fortify products such as breakfast cereals, Dr. Sloan says. That strategy is backfiring now, she says, with some market research showing that up to one-third of consumers think they are not getting enough nutrients. “The lesson here for marketers is, if you have something that is nutritionally important, you need to flaunt it, or it is a missed opportunity,” she adds.
What Is a Functional Food?
Japanese academics were among the first to promote the concept of functional foods in the early 1980s, defining them as having nutrition, sensory satisfaction, and physiological functions. Japan established regulations for functional foods in the early 1990s, followed by the European Union a decade later (see “Regulating Functional Foods Internationally,” below).
In the U.S., there is no clear definition for what a functional food is, apart from those created by industry organizations (see “Defining Functional Foods,” below). Because FDA doesn’t have a statutory or legal definition for functional foods, it does not specifically regulate them, says Sarah Johnson, PhD, assistant professor in the department of food science and human nutrition at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Food quality and safety for functional food products are regulated the same way as for any other food; however, FDA does oversee health claims made for these foods.
The definitions provided by industry organizations have a common theme, that a functional food provides benefits beyond meeting the basic nutritional needs of calories, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Functional foods add bioactive components such as nutrients or plant-based chemicals that affect one or more physiological functions in the body to improve health, reduce disease risk, or improve disease outcomes, Dr. Johnson says. Some of the better-known functional foods include teas that can reduce stress, orange juice fortified with calcium, high-protein yogurt, detoxifying water, and fermented foods rich in probiotics.