Functional foods must address a genuine consumer health need

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An episode of South Park I saw recently made fun of the Subway promotion which saw Jared, an everyday overweight American man, slim down to half his size by eating Subway sandwiches.

The episode rather obnoxiously saw the cartoon Jared reveal that he only ate two low fat Subway sandwiches each day – rather than the foot long meatball marinara many fantasised about – and combined his diet, with, wait for it, lots of exercise.

But doing some research into Subway shows that the brand did carefully stipulate that exercise was involved in Jared’s weight loss in its advertising. The same goes for Special K, which famously claims you can lose weight by following the Special K diet – but you must substitute lunch or dinner with a bowl of the cereal.

Whether encouraging people to crash diet is responsible or not is another story but what’s important here is that both brands have escaped a consumer or industry body backlash by being open and realistic about their claims.

The same cannot be said for brands in the “functional food” market; products whose added ingredients claim to offer health benefits such as lowering cholesterol.

Cynicism in the functional food market is now so widespread that the European Food Standards Authority (EFSA) is now investigating whether these brands should be allowed to claim the health benefits that they do. An approved list of product claims will be published in January, according to last week’s trends feature, meaning that marketers in this sector might have to work harder to substantiate any claims they want to make about their products – and rightly so.

According to the feature, a survey by Mintel shows that half of people believe food health claims are merely an advertising ploy, while 75% think these products are overpriced.

Marketers have a great opportunity then to not only prove people wrong but prove why the price premium is justified. One of the attitudes to come out of the survey is that many people believe they get the same benefits by eating the right fruits and vegetables.

This points to a need for brands to better illustrate the cost and time effectiveness of consuming a product with added ingredients such as fibre, iron or vitamins; for example, how much meat you would have to consume to get the same amount of iron in an enhanced orange juice or milk product.

Linking to a public need also shows a food brand’s commitment to having a positive impact, like Kellogg has by adding vitamin D to its cereals to help combat rickets. Communications manager Louise Thompson is quoted in our feature saying the company was not motivated by sales, but by addressing a genuine public health issue. Whether this is true or not, this is the kind of move that can go a long way with consumers and make people feel a certain product should become a necessity.

The functional food market holds so much promise for both brands and consumers, but the only way to escape the cynicism around this market is for manufacturers to play by the rules. Rather than playing a psychological or emotional game, the most powerful tool for food marketers will be the truth and results.

And, perhaps, a celebrity ambassador that communicates the right message – Subway’s Jared since went on to complete the New York Marathon last year.

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