Defining the phrase “functional foods” is like explaining the war in Iraq. Everyone has a different reaction. Nevertheless, the idea that certain ingredients can decrease the incidence of age-related diseases is even more popular today than when Ponce de Leon searched for the Fountain of Youth.

According to the “2006 Prepared Foods’ R&D Trends Survey: Functional Foods,” even the participating manufacturers had different definitions of the term “functional foods.” Some 63% said they are foods marketed to provide a specific health benefit. Roughly 56% said they are foods that are nutritionally beneficial.

Of respondents, 29% and 35%, respectively, described them as foods that have any nutritional fortifiers and foods with nutraceutical ingredients, such as herbs and bioactive medicinals.

Depending upon the speaker, all of the above statements are considered correct. This is likely because the terms “functional foods” and “nutraceuticals” are not specifically defined by law; neither is the term “natural.”

The International Food Information Council in Washington states that functional foods include everything from fruits and vegetables to fortified or enhanced foods. Without a standard definition, consumers and manufacturers alike can be swept up into a wave of confusion and distrust.

Approximately 88% of those surveyed found that suppliers who provided regulatory information were a better source for their functional food product development efforts.

According to the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the label of a dietary supplement or food product may contain one of three types of claims: a health claim, nutrient content claim, or structure/function claim. Health claims describe a relationship between a food, food component, or dietary supplement ingredient and reducing risk of a disease or health-related condition. Nutrient content claims describe the relative amount of a nutrient or dietary substance in a product. A structure/function claim is a statement describing how a product may affect the organs or systems of the body and cannot mention any specific disease.

Many participants in the functional foods survey believed that consumer awareness, understanding and acceptance appear to be the most significant challenges to developing or marketing functional foods. “Customer confidence defines success or failure,” says Ram Chaudhari, senior executive vice president of R&D at a company that supplies nutrient premixes.

Encouraging companies to agree about category definitions and standards is a challenge participants listed to be an uphill battle. Additionally, conflicting health benefits from published studies, reported by consumer media outlets and/or on labels, result in even more confusion. Survey participants expressed manufacturers’ need to support claims, labeling and advertising with solid scientific evidence to cultivate credibility among consumers.

Chaudhari agrees, saying that to gain customers’ confidences, there has to be open, continuous, confident and credible communication, not just hit-or-miss campaigns.

Celsius, a dietary supplement, has been clinically proven by the company to raise the metabolism through a process called thermogenics. It includes ingredients such as ginger root, green tea, guarana and caffeine.

Inflammatory Evidence

Despite certain confusing elements, consumers still understand “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Whether they choose to eat them or not, consumers understand that fruits and vegetables are nutritious.

Fruits and vegetables can help reverse the effects of free radicals, which include oxidation and cellular structure damage. These conditions result in inflammation, increasing risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes.

Antioxidants, from vitamin E and C to alpha-lipoic acid and beta carotene, capture free radicals. “Without antioxidants, you will have more damage and inflammation,” says Chaudhari. “Adding combinations of different antioxidants along with minerals like copper, manganese, zinc, selenium and iron, important cofactors of antioxidant enzyme systems, help to minimize the damage of the cells.”

In 2005 and 2006, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fiber were listed as the top three ingredients manufacturers would like to learn more about. These three ingredients also topped the list of ingredients they thought would be more important to their functional food formulation efforts; antioxidants led with 56% of the vote, followed by dietary fiber (51%), omega-3 fatty acids (51%), organic ingredients (50%) and calcium (48%).

In recent years, antioxidants have been the superstars of superfoods. According to ACNielsen LabelTrends™ research monitoring for the 52 weeks that ended 12/03/05, products (total food/drug/mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-mart) touting antioxidants showed more growth than any other major health claim, with sales up nearly 22% from a year ago. Ingredients that are highly acclaimed because of their antioxidant potential include vitamins, minerals, carotenoids and polyphenols, among others.

There is a lot of excitement and confusion surrounding functional ingredients. For example, some companies try to put their products in a favorable light by fortifying them with nutrients at levels far beyond the RDI. Recently, there have been charges that some companies are inflating oxygen radical absorption capacity (ORAC) scores; they can be a good indicator of the antioxidant potential of one ingredient versus another. Many fruits, including blueberries, cherries, gogi berries and mangosteen fruits, have polyphenolic compounds that are very potent antioxidants with high ORAC values.

“In vivo, ORAC is a suitable measuring stick, but it does not give you the antioxidant effectiveness in reality,” explains Chaudhari. Additionally, ORAC values alone do not reflect the USDA's guidelines to “eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.”

“The food industry has a hard time with this because they need numbers for marketing or labeling purposes but, really, the end consumer doesn't know what ORAC means,” says Stephan Hake, CEO at a company that processes fruit and vegetable extracts. “The consumer will better understand that a product is equivalent to a bowl of fruits and vegetables more than they will understand the ORAC score.”

Backing Up Claims

According to data from the 2006 Prepared Foods functional foods survey, “price, lack of consumer awareness and lack of scientific validation” are the three greatest challenges to product development efforts for manufacturers thinking about entering or expanding into the functional foods market.

Most functional food companies should back up their claims with clinical research, suggests Steve Haley, president and CEO of Elite FX, manufacturer of the supplement Celsius, a drink his company markets as the first calorie-burning soda, boosting energy levels through a process called thermogenics. Elite FX first presented and published its study about Celsius at the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN). “By publishing the results of clinical tests, which validate that Celsius burns calories, we wanted to create a new standard for the functional food and beverage industry,” says Haley.

Many companies make claims without presenting credible scientific data. “If the consumer is going to trust functional foods and beverages, then it is incumbent upon the brands to stand behind their claims. The only way they can do that is to test the entire product—not only an ingredient,” states Haley. “Otherwise, how do they know that the sweeteners, fruit and flavoring ingredients did not cancel each other out? Other ingredients in the formula can all change how a functional food ingredient behaves nutritionally.”

Nutra-trim Gum is clinically proven to increase the metabolism and help control cravings. It is formulated with green tea, L-carnitine and chromium picolinate in berry and spearmint varieties.

Antioxidant Tag Teams

“Fruits and vegetables across the board are popular as ingredients. People really like a clean label, and the consumer can relate to natural products derived from fruits and vegetables,” says Hake. “The difficult part is delivering it in a convenient way to consumers.” He gives grape seeds as an example. They are high in polyphenols and accepted as healthful by consumers but, from a technical point, they might cause difficulty when used to fortify a cereal.

Studies have shown that certain functional food ingredients have synergistic effects or negative reactions with one another. Many manufacturers are struggling to determine what kinds and amounts of phytonutrients and nutraceuticals they can add to their products to achieve optimal taste, shelflife and bioavailability.

“Some nutrients complement one another, such as the case with vitamin A and vitamin D; or the combination of vitamins C, E and selenium enhancing the free-radical quenching process. In addition, the body has hydrophilic and hydrophobic systems, so both water- and fat-soluble antioxidants are needed,” explains Chaudhari.

In another example, polyphenolics may bind with other macromolecules, antioxidants can chelate products high in protein and minerals, or iron can oxidize ascorbic acid (vitamin C), causing discoloration. Nutrients can be added at different stages of processing, at different temperatures, or even microencapsulated to minimize reactions.

Delivering the Right Stuff

“You cannot add every nutrient into every type of product,” warns Chaudhari. “It will not necessarily be twice as good if you add twice as much,” he says. “Most importantly, you have to have a product that will deliver these antioxidants in a stabilized form, without affecting the taste and flavor.”

There are many variables to consider when minimizing reactivity of nutrients with other ingredients in a product. “For example, there are various forms of L-carnitine. “Deciding on which form to use depends on the other components, the application, shelflife and desired label amount,” explains Chaudhari.

“Taste is the driver. Without it, you are not going to have a chance to succeed,” he says. “[R&D] has to find innovative ways to mask ingredients like alpha-lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, acetyl-L-carnitine and choline. These particular ingredients either don't taste good or smell bad and interact [negatively] with other ingredients.”

More than 70% of manufacturers found that suppliers were a better source for their functional food product development efforts when they provided information about the effectiveness and healthfulness of their ingredients.

Beverages continue to reign as the product category that manufacturers believe will offer the greatest opportunity for developing functional foods, followed by baked goods and organic products. In 2005, snacks and health bars were ranked second among the top three product categories for functional foods, but dropped to seventh place in this year's survey.

The launch of baked goods fortified with omega-3 fatty acids sourced from flax, soy, nuts, fish oils and algae has increased by leaps and bounds. Omega-3 is known to be an instrumental factor affecting cardiovascular disease, child and maternal health, cognitive function, diabetes, eye and mental health. After omega-3 was recognized for a structure/function claim, many suppliers set out to help manufacturers circumvent the challenges of fatty-acid oxidation, a problem that causes discoloration, staling and a fishy-smelling product.

Countering Organic Costs

The Prepared Foods' 2006 functional foods survey also questioned participants about the challenges of formulating organic products. Organic foods is a growing category and many consumers equate organic items with better health. Organic products represent $4.3 billion in annual sales and have grown by nearly 18% versus a year ago, reports ACNielsen's LabelTrends™ research.

Cost is by far the greatest challenge to developing organic food products, says one survey participant. Another said the high price of organic ingredients is influenced by inadequate sources of ingredient supply.

Indeed, when asked to name the three greatest challenges in developing organic food products, 74%, 45% and 28% of surveyed processors chose cost, inadequate sources of ingredient supply and lack of consumer awareness or demand, respectively.

“It is labor-intensive to segregate and produce organic ingredients,” says Chaudari. “If there is a big demand for organic fortification and certification, then there will be mass production and improved technology, which will make it more cost-effective.”

“Retail stores like Whole Foods and Wild Oats have had a big influence, because they are the ones out there educating the consumers. Consumers are using the lists of what is and what is not allowed in their stores as guidelines for their own personal shopping,” observes Hake. “Now, it is reported that Wal-Mart wants to be the biggest supplier of organic foods worldwide. That statement holds a lot of weight.”

It is difficult to compare the price of an enriched product to that of an existing product because the contrast in price often is startling for consumers, comments Hake. “One way to justify the high costs of functional and organic foods to consumers is to compare the costs related to the time it takes to cut, peel and prepare fresh fruits and vegetables for consumption to the related costs of having a convenient, fortified drink or yogurt. Of course it is better to eat a basket of fruits and vegetables, but in the long run, consumers are getting an added value with fortification.”

Natural Talent

Natural products do not necessarily have functional ingredients. Yet, when asked, “What ingredient characteristics or benefits present the greatest opportunity for your product development efforts?” 52% of participants picked natural ingredients above options like cholesterol reduction, cardiovascular health, weight loss and other health attributes.

Products labeled “natural” represent $20 billion in annual sales and cross a wide spectrum of categories, according to research by ACNielsen LabelTrends™. Natural product sales increased by over $1.2 billion in 2005.

“The regulatory definition for natural is vague, and everybody defines it a different way,” says Chaudhari. Additionally, sometimes procedures that are needed to make a natural ingredient safe also may mean it is no longer considered natural. For example, vitamin B2 is produced by fermentation that is considered natural, but in order to make it GRAS, food developers have to minimize lead and arsenic with purification steps, thereby losing the “natural” aspect. There is a perception that natural is better, but many believe that may not always be the case.

The food industry is going back to the basics by using simple ingredients, says Hake. “As a result, they are hiring more research chefs than before, because manufacturers need to relate food in a way that the consumer can understand.”

The “2006 Prepared Foods R&D Trends Survey: Functional Foods” suggests that companies put aside the hunt for mystic cure-all fountains and commission their marketing departments to work with R&D so that everyone knows the desired market position for new products, are familiar with labeling guidelines and understand that labels are to educate and not exasperate consumers.

Website Resources: — Supplier of nutrient premixes — Information about natural colors and functional ingredients — Search Linx using the term “Functional Foods” — International Food Information Council