The UK’s functional food and drinks market continues to boom as consumers increasingly recognise the importance of taking their health in to their own hands, according to a new report from Mintel.

In 2003, sales of functional foods and drink, which are designed to provide a specific benefit beyond their nutritional value with long-term use, were estimated to be over six times the value of those in 1998.  Valued at £835m, the market is forecast to double in the next five years reaching £1.72bn in 2007.

Exclusive research questioning 1,000 consumers highlights heart disease and breast cancer as Britain’s top health concerns. Indeed, concerns over health have driven consumers to take greater responsibility of their own well-being. In 2000, 63% of adults agreed that a person should be responsible for their own healthcare, this has since risen to 71%, while in 1998, 50% agreed that they should do a lot more about their own health, this increased to 53% in 2003.

“Consumers are becoming more health aware as they increasingly recognise the need to take more care to protect their own health.  They have done so largely by exercising regularly and taking greater care over their diet,” said consumer analyst Amanda Lintott.

Almost a quarter of adults only eat foods that are supposed to be good for them, following government advice to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables. Around three in ten read food ingredients/nutritional content labels – a rise of 10 percentage points since 2001.

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“On the whole, Mintel’s research appears extremely positive for suppliers of functional food and drink products. A greater proportion of the population paying attention to what they are eating and drinking suggests that they may be receptive to products that could have a beneficial impact on their health beyond the basic nutritional value of a certain food or drink,” said Lintott.

Consumer cynicism stunts market growth

Some 37% of adults never buy functional food and drink; this infers that 63% of consumers have bought such products in the past.  Almost one in ten adults purchase functional foods regularly.  There remains a significant one in four adults who simply do not believe the health claims made by manufacturers, while the same proportion would buy them if convinced of their benefits.

A rigorous system to ensure that there is sufficient scientific evidence to substantiate each health claim is crucial for the credibility of functional food and drink products.

“While self-regulation in the functional foods market is now up and running in the UK, adoption of an EU-wide system of regulation will ensure a harmonised approach across the whole of Europe. This is key for the success of companies operating in the wider EU market,” said Lintott.

Drinks provide opportunities

In terms of specific products, the lack of success for functional cereal bars, including Benecol Bars and Marks & Spencer & More bars, is in line with recent trends in snacking, which suggest a move towards beverages in preference to foods. Health-conscious but time-poor consumers are looking for quick-and-easy solutions to their health demands. Drinks are quick and easy to consume, and more convenient than chewing food when in a hurry. Drinks are thus an ideal vehicle for the addition of health properties.

“This suggests excellent opportunities for nutritious beverages, as highlighted by growth in the smoothies and the probiotics markets. The future looks positive for more products that offer ease and convenience, and make little fuss out of ingesting the health benefit they offer,” Lintott added.