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No room for functional foods gloom

09-Feb-2009
Last updated on 10-Feb-2009 at 13:10 GMT

Last week’s withdrawal of a high-profile functional food in France is disappointing for the company concerned and maybe for the healthy/functional foods industry, but you may be led to think differently if you happen to be a reader of the UK broadsheet, The Financial Times.

Danone’s decision to pull its beauty yoghurt Essensis from French retail shelves due to withering sales amplified by the economic slow-down (click here to read about the withdrawal) prompted the FT journalist covering the story to write:

“The withdrawal could signal the end of the so-called ‘functional foods’ movement of the past few years in which staid food companies experimented with unusual kinds of products, including flavour and vitamin-enhanced waters.”

Er, sorry?

The “end of the so-called ‘functional foods’ movement”? Quite a big call but the FT is a globally respected commerce broadsheet – there must be facts backing that up. Here they come now in the following paragraphs – oh, here they don’t. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

A couple of other product withdrawals in unrelated categories are mentioned. Stats showing falling sales in major European markets in drinking yoghurt, when the product in question was a spoonable yoghurt (it’s different!)

Surely the FT can do better than that. It’s trite, groundless and damaging reporting. Did the journalist consider the outrageous global 20-year success of Danone’s probiotic yoghurts when typing out those words?

Let’s go to the facts

In journalism it is true for most, especially those in the mainstream press, that you know a little about a lot of things. A fact of life – news journalism by its very day-to-day nature is necessarily general rather than specific – and one that only strengthens the old adage of sticking to the facts.

Here’s a fact – in almost every western country the functional food and beverage industry has outgrown and outperformed the conventional food and beverage industry annually for 10 years or more.

Market researcher, Euromonitor has observed “a dynamic functional food and beverage market offering good prospects for growth for well-positioned food and drink manufacturers”.

Between 1998 and 2003 alone, global sales of functional foods increased almost 60 per cent, and have grown by about 10 per cent per annum since then.

Even developing economies such as Brazil, Mexico, China, South Korea, Hungary, Poland and Russia, are registering healthy growth rates in foods fortified to make them healthier or marketed on their inherent healthy qualities.

Indeed, the FT itself in 2006 wrote: “Food conglomerates are increasingly relying on innovative products to cater for the growing demand for healthy eating to maintain margins and growth in an otherwise mature market undercut by the big retailers' own labels.”

Yes the economic climate is changing everything. Belts are being tightened. Consumer choice is being narrowed and more product failures are certain. But the end of functional foods? Easy, tiger.

Premises and promises

Companies and governments have been fortifying foods and drinks to make them healthier for a century or more. There’s a good reason for that. The promise is so strong. Their potential to benefit public health too great to ignore.

Only yesterday in another UK broadsheet, The Observer, a story on the importance of vitamin D to maintain health and ward off disease highlighted the potential of fortifying foods with the nutrient, especially in countries where there is low amounts of sunlight (which provokes vitamin D production in the body).

That is just one nutrient. There are other letter vitamins. Folic acid, plant sterols, omega-3, probiotics – the list goes on.

For every Essensis there is an Actimel or a Benecol or a Yakult, a Red Bull or even a Lucozade that have broached the mainstream by delivering a very real health benefit via the introduction of select ingredients.

With food science and formulation improving all the time, the potential of functional foods to deliver on their health-improving promise has never been greater.

To the cynics, let them eat (functional) cake.

Shane Starling is the editor of NutraIngredients.com and eats probiotic yoghurt for breakfast. If you would like to comment on this article email shane.starling'at'decisionnews.com.