We’re living longer, but will we enjoy a healthy old age? Consumers are increasingly turning to wellness foods to ensure they remain on top form. Organic food is one of the segments to benefit, as are relative newcomers omega-3 and whole grain foods. Catherine Sleep reports.

The developed world is a complex place. On the whole, we eat more than our ancestors but we’re physically less active. The net result is that obesity has become a global scourge, with an estimated 300m people around the world now obese (Body Mass Index above 30), prompting a growing number of consumers to put healthier food and beverage products in their shopping trolleys on a regular basis.

We’re not all motivated by fear of future ill health or an early demise. A more positive incentive for many consumers is a rising fascination with the whole topic of wellbeing, with more of us taking an active interest in improving our general health right now. As a new report The World Market for Health and Wellness Products, published by Euromonitor International, reveals, healthier foods and beverages are becoming a lifestyle choice and not simply a response to a medical or weight-related condition.

Feeding the organic generation

The organic foods market, which leapt 25% in value sales between 2002 and 2004, exemplifies this trend. Organic products, with their ethical claims and holistic offering of wellbeing, are an attractive proposition to consumers. Consumers buy them not to help with weight loss or a particular ailment, but out of a general desire to live healthier lives.

The report suggests that women and parents are the biggest consumers of organic products. Unsurprisingly then, targeted marketing and premium pricing ensures that organic food and drink retains a specific appeal. Industry sources predict that organic food and drink sales will continue to grow ahead of other health and wellness categories, particularly as more and more multiples increase their organic ranges to satisfy consumer demand.

Functional ingredients steam ahead

In line with this consumer appetite to seek out new ways to improve wellbeing, there is great scope for new product innovation, particularly around functional ingredients, which offer specific health benefits. This trend emerged in 2005, somewhat filling the gaping hole left by the demise of the low-carb phenomenon, with a number of functional ingredients gaining global recognition and inspiring manufacturers to introduce new product lines.

With global functional food and beverage sales up by 20% between 2002 and 2004, to US$68bn, the research suggests the sector is a logical choice for manufacturer investment. Two ingredients in particular emerged in 2005, namely whole grains and omega-3, both of which are now taking the industry by storm on both sides of the Atlantic.

Whole grain for heart health

When the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched its latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 2005, one of the main changes was the advice to “eat more whole grains”. Manufacturers such as Nestlé and Quaker quickly reformulated a number of their cereals with extra whole grains. In North America and Europe, thanks to their proven link to reduced incidence of heart disease, whole grains have rapidly become a ‘naturally healthy’ food of choice among all age groups.

Heart disease remains the number one cause of death in most developed countries so it is no surprise that products that reduce this risk have been warmly received. In mainland Europe, whole grain yoghurts and yoghurt drinks have found a receptive audience too. Parents have also found their children well catered for, with children’s cereals from Nestlé, Quaker and Kellogg all being marketed on the basis of their whole grain richness.

The whole grain category still has huge growth potential, as shown by a survey commissioned this month which revealed that some 68% of adults in the US remain unaware that they should consume at least three daily servings of whole grains, the daily intake recommended by the USDA.

The survey, commissioned by the Whole Grains Council and Unilever-owned brand Knorr-Lipton Sides, also revealed that 47% are seeking easier and tastier ways to incorporate whole grain foods into their diet, suggesting there is ample opportunity for manufacturers to develop convenient whole grain products.

Omega-3 for brain development

While whole grains are most often marketed on the basis of being ‘naturally healthy’, other functional ingredients are positioned according to their specific health claims, such as omega-3. “National legislative differences mean that some potential functional ingredients may never make it on to the mass market,” the Euromonitor report says, “but omega-3 has cleanly jumped this hurdle to become the big hit of 2005.”

The fish-oil craze has taken hold in Europe, particularly in the UK, which currently accounts for nearly 50% of fish-oil supplements sold in Europe. The fish oil market was worth EUR357.6m in 2004, with the UK accounting for EUR169.1m of this, Euromonitor said. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is largely due to a popular TV programme, Robert Winston’s Child of our Time, which strongly suggested fish oils could boost children’s attention span and help behaviour problems. However, fish-oil manufacturers have emphasised that a strong surge in sales just after the programme was screened in 2004 was merely a particularly sharp spike in a long-term upward trend.

Supplements may be the product of choice in the convenience-driven UK market, but elsewhere in Europe omega-3 milk, yoghurt, cheese and even bread have become popular. Sales of Nestlé’s Petit drinking yoghurt, marketed in Spain, are reported to have been boosted by the link between essential fatty acids and child brain development. Last year saw the repositioning of a number of products naturally high in omega-3 as functional foods, marketed on the basis of specific health claims. So far, omega-3 products have tended to be orientated towards children, but rapidly ageing populations mean there is also scope for targeted age-specific product development.

In spite of rising consumer interest in all things “healthy”, mature markets including North America, Western Europe and Japan are approaching saturation, while competition with private label is driving down prices across the health and wellness market. But the report predicts that growing consumerism in emerging markets, such as Russia, China and Mexico, offers new avenues for growth in 2006 and beyond.

Find out more about The World Market for Health and Wellness Products.