Sales of functional foods have shot up across Europe, according to market analyst Datamonitor, but some consumers are still deterred from buying them by a lack of trust in their makers.

A new report, called “New Consumer Insight: Insights Into Tomorrow’s Nutraceutical Consumers – Building consumer interest and trust in functional food and drinks,” puts sales of functional foods in Europe at EUR4bn (US$4.7bn).

As people seek to improve their diets rather than just popping vitamin supplements, functional foods seem like an excellent way to fill the gap, Datamonitor said. But many consumers are still deterred from buying these expensive products because they simply do not trust their makers.  In the UK, where sales reached £419m (US$721m) in 2004, over six in ten consumers do not believe food and drink health claims.

“Unless companies make labelling clearer and more believable, most people will never be persuaded to make the switch to functional food and drinks,” said  John Band, consumer markets analyst at Datamonitor and author of the report.

Sales of functional products rose by 43% in Europe between 1999 and 2004, reaching a total value of EUR4bn. Germans eat and drink the most functional products in Europe: at EUR1bn, sales are more than 150% the size of those in any other EU country. Germany not only has Western Europe’s largest population, it also has the second-highest level of per-head consumption after Sweden, reflecting German consumers’ fondness for self-medication and health maintenance. Growth in the UK was slower: Brits only stepped up their consumption by a third over the same period, leaving the market at GBP419m in 2004.

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“The problem is that British consumers are Europe’s most cynical,” said Band. “They just don’t believe that products have real health benefits”.

“French consumers are reluctant to consume packaged ‘healthy’ products: they prefer to trust in the health benefits of traditional local food,” he said. “Across Europe, consumers would increasingly benefit from functional food, but they don’t yet believe that it will help them.”

Cynicism is not unique to the UK.  Nearly half of Europeans lack trust in mainstream media channels, particularly the press and television, and almost six in ten say that they do not trust big companies. Trust between consumers and suppliers is rapidly diminishing – a trend that is shifting how consumers spend their money. “Such figures are symptomatic of a growing problem faced by the marketing industry,” said Band.

Consumers view food and drinks firms as less trustworthy than banks, insurance companies, utilities or car dealers – and are especially wary of specific health-boosting claims. In the UK, 63% of people do not trust food and drinks companies’ health-boosting claims. Even among the more trusting people of mainland Europe, 47% of French people and 56% of Germans are wary of health claims.

“It’s not hard to work out why consumers don’t trust food health claims,” said Band. “If people don’t understand what the advert or the label is talking about, of course they won’t believe it’ll be a miracle cure. All too often, functional products make wide-ranging claims using complicated scientific language – and people just don’t think the claims will be true. Companies need to educate consumers on how nutraceuticals work, and at the same time promote realistic expectations.”

Growth potential for functional food and drinks is huge.  Consumers everywhere in Europe say it is important to improve health, and to do so by improving one’s diet. But we are far more likely to report positive attitudes towards healthy living and healthy eating than we are to report having improved our lifestyles in line with these concerns. “Consumers have moved on from the attitudes of the 1960s, when people didn’t feel guilty about their health when choosing food – availability and affordability were the major concerns”, says Band. “Today, consumers are following crash and fad diets and popping vitamin pills to make up for deficient lifestyles. In the future, they will increasingly need sustainable nutrition, both in terms of weight maintenance and in terms of providing nutrients. This is certain to mean that we eat more functional food and drinks.” Datamonitor forecasts sales in the UK will grow 32% to £551m in 2009, but players will need to overcome consumers’ mistrust to grow their share of this market.