Low carb may be the most profitable hotspot in the food and drinks industry today, but by 2009, cholesterol-reducing products will take the number one position, according to a new report.

Reuters Business Insight's report - New Profit Opportunities in Health and Nutrition to 2009 - found that 42% of industry executives believe low carb is currently 'highly profitable' and 37% cite it as 'profitable'. Low fat, cholesterol-reducing and diabetic-friendly products follow low carb's pole position. By 2009, 45% of respondents agreed that cholesterol-reducing products would be 'highly profitable' compared to just 26% for low-carb.

"Consumers are increasingly turning to nutrition instead of, or as well as, medicine in an attempt to prevent illnesses from allergies and skin disorders to diabetes. The report advises food and drinks companies to take heed of this growing consumer interest in nutrition and enhance this by promoting the product's health benefits where possible," said Helen Lewis, author of the report, which surveyed 1,250 industry executives from around the world.

The top consumer concerns relating to nutrition are identified through a survey of 159 UK consumers. Obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes were recognised as the top four consumer health concerns in order of importance.

"Consumers are becoming increasingly self-aware and self-medicating. Understanding consumers' health concerns and the relationship between nutrition and purchasing habits unlock the door to new profit opportunities and growth strategies," the report says.

This desire to self-medicate is reflected in the growing significance of functional food and drinks, which take the lead as the most successful healthy food category. The report predicts that functional foods, pre-packed, pre-prepared fruit snacks and probiotics will be the most successful healthy food products to 2009.

It adds that lessons can be learned from Asia Pacific, particularly Japan, Australia and New Zealand, which are the most advanced markets in terms of consumer acceptance of the role of nutrition and purchase of functional food and drinks.

As well as identifying key categories, markets and ingredients, the report also pinpoints the most significant target audience - children. Around 63% of industry executives think healthy products for kids will have the highest NPD activity over the next five years.

The report identifies areas that have not yet been exploited with a health label, such as premium canned food, as well as concluding that health claims can be a "legal minefield" and highlighting products that contain specific ingredients "will be helpful to consumers who are already increasingly building the knowledge of which ingredients are linked to which concerns".

For more information, or to purchase the report, click here.