The functional food market is currently worth around US$22.92bn globally, and is expected to grow year-on-year by between 3% and 5% over the next five years, according to Leatherhead Food Research forecasts.

As previously stated, growth in the sector is being driven by new product development (NPD), principally the extension of existing brands with healthier or functional variants by major food manufacturers. NPD and innovation will continue to be clear drivers for the market going forward.

The news last October that PepsiCo would be creating a “global nutrition group” aimed at delivering “breakthrough innovation” across a number of better-for-you product areas including functional foods represents just one, albeit prominent, example of a trend being seen to varying degrees across the entire food market.

That functional foods are now big business is underlined by PepsiCo’s statement that it plans to grow its nutrition businesses from about US$10bn in revenues in 2010 to US$30bn by 2020. Brands such as Quaker and Tropicana already boast high-profile functional range extensions.

Extending existing lines not only taps into consumer sensibilities over health and helps to reinforce brand presence. It also clearly represents a premiumisation opportunity for major food brands.

However, as the functional market develops, competition intensifies and consumers become inured to products bearing purported health benefits, some analysts believe premium-pricing may become more difficult for brands to justify. “Research shows that consumers are likely to pay a premium for foods they believe are healthy and will provide them with a health benefit – if they can see immediate results. For those new innovations not offering immediate benefits, competitive pricing is imperative,” Future Directions for Functional Food, a report from Leatherhead Food Research, states.

However, the most salient issue affecting the future of the functional foods sector is the debate over health claims. While there has long been concern among campaigners that legislation regarding health claims on functional foods is lax, recent regulatory activity in Europe and the US suggests there could be some tightening of controls in the foreseeable future. As the same report from Leatherhead Food Research, concludes: “Regulations are likely to become stricter and only health claims with strong scientific backing will be permitted for use or can be endorsed.”

As the regulatory environment is likely to become tougher, the challenge for food marketers will be to live within those strictures and market their products inventively but legally. The introduction of limitations on what brand marketing can say about the ‘science’ of their products could in theory lead to greater marketing ingenuity around functional foods as brands seek to attract consumers and differentiate themselves. The future progress of the sector will therefore to a degree be defined by the balance between scientific accuracy and marketing creativity.

As the market matures, consumer knowledge – and scepticism – will also become an increasingly influential factor. In fact, consumer scepticism is already a critically important issue for marketers of functional foods to address.

The centrality of the health claims issue is often characterised in terms of consumers being misled by deceptive or exaggerated claims. In terms of its negative impact on reputation, this does represent a threat to producers of functional foods. However, an equally worrying factor for producers is that many consumers do not believe the claims at all.

A report on the probiotic sector published by just-food states that one of the chief obstacles that functional food producers need to tackle is the “high degree of consumer scepticism” about health claims. As the market has developed, consumers are becoming increasingly demanding of more robust evidence to back up claims, the report states.

Research by the EU Commission suggests that 77% of European consumers do not trust health and nutrition claims made by food manufacturers on their products. In a survey of UK consumers’ attitudes to functional foods commissioned by business research company Key Note last year, 51.9% of respondents said they did not tend to believe the health claims made by manufacturers.

In the US, around half of the population find health claims on food either confusing or misleading, while only a minority are believed to pay much attention to them when shopping for food, according to the just-food probiotics report. In Australia, only around 25% of people firmly believe the health claims on functional foods, the same report states.

General product reformulation may also have a bearing on the progress of the functional food market. As there is increasing demand from consumers, campaigners and policymakers for food in general to be made healthier, functional foods may have to work harder to differentiate themselves. However, as constraints may be made on what brands can and cannot claim on packaging and advertising this may not be easy to achieve.

Once again, this makes the current debates over the way functional food health claims are verified and communicated critical in assessing how the category may develop.

In the obesity debate, the industry always claims there is no such thing as unhealthy foods, only unhealthy diets. That may or may not be a valid point. However, while they may claim that no food need be branded “unhealthy”, when looking at it from the other way food companies are happy to identify functional offerings as decidedly more healthy than others. Whether this seems a contradiction or not may depend on one’s point of view but there is no doubt that an important and expanding sector of the food market is founded on precisely that premise.