April 2011 - Globally, the development of healthier-for-you functional food and dietary supplements has witnessed significant interest on the part of the research community, industry and governments. Market momentum began in earnest in the late 1980s, when consumers began to recognize certain foods and food supplements could have a positive impact on health. There is much to be investigated in all aspects of the area where, even with definitions, there is little consistency.

“Functional food” is essentially a marketers’ or analysts’ term and is not recognized legally in any jurisdiction. As such, companies and market researchers use the term inconsistently and there are many variations of the definition.In general, functional foods can be described as “foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health, when consumed as a part of a varied diet” (Hasler and Brown, 2009).

Examples of conventional functional foods include oats and barley-soluble fiber and wheat bran fiber. Enriched or fortified foods include calcium-enriched orange juice. Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the most popular ingredients for incorporation into foods and beverages and have had a long and successful history in the dietary supplement market. Worldwide product launches of new foods and beverages containing omega-3 have more than doubled since 2004 (Datamonitor Analysis, 2009) and are expected to surpass US$7 billion by 2011. Among the most popular omega-3 sources are canola and flaxseed oils and fish oil. 

One of the most intriguing and important aspects in the success of the functional food and dietary sector is the acceptance by consumers of the role these products can play in the healthy diet and lifestyle regimes. Consumers are increasingly aware of the relationship between diet and health, and are the driving force behind the development of new health food and supplement products. Generally, most North American surveys report the majority of consumers (over three-quarters) feel that eating healthy is a better way to manage illness than medication. As early as 1998, in an International Food Information Council survey of 1,000 consumers in the U.S., 95% expressed the belief that certain foods provided benefits that could reduce disease risk or improve health (International Food Information Council , 2009).

Factors that affect consumer acceptance of functional foods are numerous and include: demographic issues (gender, age, and education [Dagevos, 2005; Bhaskaran and Hardley, 2002]); product characteristics, such as convenience, price and taste (Verbeke, 2005); and psychological features, including confidence and/or concerns about functional foods (De Jong et al., 2003; van Kleef et al., 2002). In addition, nutritional knowledge has been shown to independently influence consumption (Harper, 1999). Food labels and advertising may also influence consumer behavior (vanKleef, et al., 2005).

Behavior related to functional foods has been assessed by measuring attitudes which can focus on response efficacy; that is the extent to which a person believes a particular health care action mitigates a health threat (Henson, et al., 2010). Cox, et al. (2004) found the perceivedefficacy accounted well for the intention to consume functional foods with omega-3 fatty acids that were presented to improve memory. Conversely, risk perception will impact a person’s attitudes about the safety and credibility of functional foods. In a group of Australian consumers, Patch, et al. (2005) reported that risk perception influenced attitudes toward enrichment of foods with omega-3 fatty acids and subsequent intention to consume.

In an examination of attitudes related to the perceived healthiness of functional foods, Bech-Larsen and Grunert (2003) found that different processing methods, the use of different health claims, types of enrichments and types of products were determinants of consumers’ acceptance. Further, providing consumers with information related to health and nutrition appeared to be effective in changing attitudes toward functional foods.

Consumer research is now firmly recognized as essential for understanding acceptance of new products and subsequent purchase decisions. Such investigation is a critical part of the product development roadmap. It is intriguing to assess the dichotomies of consumer behavior with regard to health and wellness. The literature in the area is growing and playing a very important role in the marketing of new functional foods.  NS