Ambitious research, political willingness and a liberal marketing regime are likely to put Sweden and Finland at the forefront as the market for functional foods comes of age. Although the US and Europe are lagging behind Japan when it comes to developing functional foods, Karin Malmcrona, programme director at the National Centre for Functional Foods (NCFF) in Gothenburg, Sweden, sees the Nordic region as the next hotspot as a new generation of functional foods finds its way out of the laboratories and onto supermarket shelves.

“Sweden has the potential to become a leading nation when it comes to functional foods. Sweden and Finland have already been singled out by many observers as the new developing centres,” she said. One good reason for this is that Sweden has invested heavily in publicly funded research centres for functional foods, which in two to three years time will bring a number of new products to market.

Along with NCFF there is the Functional Food Science Centre in Lund. Some 50 researchers are working with industry on various projects regarding functional foods. In Uppsala, researchers are developing advanced analytical methods in order to better determine the effects of food on humans.

Swedish EU presidency could push legislation through

These efforts also find great support with Swedish farm minister Margareta Winberg. Winberg is a strong advocate of functional food and is expected to try to make headway in this field as Sweden holds the six-month EU presidency. It is greatly needed. The EU is still struggling to define functional foods and determine which health claims should be allowed to market them.

Winberg will propose the EU uses Swedish regulations as a starting point. The main principle of the regulations is a two-step argumentation process. First, the advert could state, “XX substance has beneficial effects on [say] blood pressure.” The next claim could read, “This product contains XX.” A strict requirement is, however, that the statements are backed up by sound scientific data. They are seen as the most liberal in Europe and thus make the Swedish market an attractive launch pad for new functional foods.

Marketing guidelines lagging behind product development

Breaking new ground, Unilever subsidiary Van den Bergh Foods is currently running a TV commercial for its newly launched Becel pro.activ spread, which claims to lower cholesterol levels thanks to stanol ester. However, regulations are still too tight, Winberg and the industry argue in unison. For one thing, marketing rules do not yet apply to products with living microorganisms.

“Therefore it is necessary for us to find suitable means with which to handle these products,” she said. Winberg said Sweden could go ahead with a reformed national regulatory framework, were the efforts in the EU not progressing.

Probably the best known Swedish functional product is the ProViva oat-based fruit drink, produced by the Skånemejerier dairy. A probiotic product, ProViva contains the patented bacteria Lactobacillus plantarum 299v, which the company claims has beneficial effects on the bowels and probably on the immune system as well.

ProViva won international recognition a couple of years ago when it was revealed former champion hurdler Ludmila Engqvist had made a remarkable recovery from a breast cancer treatment after using an enhanced version of ProViva. The formula is also being used in an ice cream and in a recently launched “recovery drink,” ProViva Active, for athletes. It is also being tested in children’s food products.

The owner of the patented Lactobacillus plantarum 299v, the biotech group Probi, is currently seeking a global partner for a broader launch of ProViva products on the international markets. Despite the limited possibilities to market the claimed beneficial effects of ProViva, the product generated sales worth SKr200m last year, mainly in Sweden, and turnover is growing at a rate of nearly 20%, according to Skånemejerier.

Finland’s Raisio leading the field

Last autumn, Finland’s Raisio launched its Benecol cholesterol lowering spread in Sweden and Denmark. Like Van den Bergh’s Becel, the beneficial content in Benecol is stanol ester. It retails at nearly four times the price of conventional spreads.

Raisio has also linked up with Finnish dairy group Valio and, most recently, with compatriot meat group Atria. Raisio and Atria will later this year introduce functional food products based on Raiso’s discovery. “It will be products such as sausages, ham and chilled ready meals,” said Seppo Paatelainen, managing director of Atria.

The Raisio-Valio cooperation will lead to new products this spring, the companies said last December. Valio already makes a range of functional foods on its own, such as the Gefilus yoghurt line and Evolus, a milk drink launched late last year in Finland, which Valio claims lowers blood pressure.

BioGaia Biologics and Biodoc are two other Swedish companies with functional food products already on the market. BioGaia has also taken its probiotic nutrition products overseas working with Johnson & Johnson of the US and Japanese dairy group Chichiyasa Milk Co.

Denmark, Norway slower off the mark

Danish and Norwegian players have so far been slow to act. One reason for this could be the more restrictive marketing regulations they are bound by. Dairy group MD Foods introduced the Gaio spread in 1998, but efforts to promote it have been half-hearted. The group last year merged with Swedish dairy group Arla, and their cooperation has not yet resulted in any new functional foods.

Industry observers also attribute Sweden and Finland’s pioneer status to a high level of health awareness and high living standards. They also think the market is ready for new products. ” Nils-Georg Asp, professor and managing director of Swedish Nutrition Foundation, anticipates in particular probiotic products, other fats with optimised fatty acid make-up, and as knowledge increases, products with more potent antioxidants, which are known to slow the ageing process in the cells in the body.

If these innovative new products are to reach a mass market, it is imperative that legislators catch up with the scientists and enable them to educate consumers by marketing their products truthfully and effectively.

By correspondent based in Scandinavia recently published a two-part feature on marketing functional foods. To read part one, click here and to read part two, click here.