Proactive consumers are on the hunt for foods offering nutritional perks. Are your products in their sights?

Never before in the modern world have consumers been so in tune with the components of food, and how consumption impacts health and wellness. This presents an incredible opportunity for manufacturers of inherently nutritious foods . . . just like those based on dairy.

According to the 2003 HealthFocus Trend Report from HealthFocus International, St. Petersburg, Fla., substantive changes in consumer attitudes during the past 10 to 15 years have produced some fundamental changes in the health and nutrition market. For example, in 1990, consumers were primarily reactive, trying to avoid health problems, whereas today, they are more proactive. The grocery aisles have become a hunting grounds in a safari for healthful and functional foods.

"Older shoppers are managing daily health and preparing for the future with a strong sense of optimism and high expectations regarding longevity with quality of life," says HealthFocus President Linda Gilbert. "Younger shoppers who are also focused on daily health want to look and feel good. They see healthy choices as contributing to a sense of accomplishment and wellness."

Consumers today are less into disease prevention and more into feeling good and achieving a high level of well being.

"While the focus in the past was primarily on physical condition, today's focus is more holistic to include physical, emotional, spiritual and mental health," Gilbert says. "Don't let the nutritional dimension of your brand or products solely define the positioning.

"Balance is key, not only in the diet, but in life overall," she continues. "There's a sense of entitlement among baby boomers and younger generations, which has reshaped the way consumers make choices. It's about great taste and nutrition, luxury and affordability, natural and convenient, fresh and fast, and fat and fit."

Dairy foods are all these things!

More than nine in 10 shoppers seek foods with specific health benefits at least some of the time. Let's make sure they are choosing dairy.

Functionally healthful

"Healthy eating no longer means just avoiding nutritionally undesirable foods and ingredients," Gilbert says. "Today, healthy eating means balancing healthy with less healthy choices. Unhealthy and indulgent choices coexist with healthful and nutritional options."

Today's consumers are aware of the better-for-you food choices available to them. And in many cases, they will seek out these foods. According to the HealthFocus report, more than nine in 10 shoppers are Health Active shoppers, which means they select foods or beverages for healthful reasons at least some of the time. Only 6% of all shoppers (dubbed Unmotivated) rarely or never make healthful food choices. Taste is the primary obstacle to healthy choices, together with time, convenience and price.

Remember, though, we live in an age of entitlement, which includes indulgent foods. This is why when you look at the category of ice cream, almost the same percent of Health Active shoppers (30%) eat ice cream at least once a week as do Unmotivated shoppers (29%). However, more Health Active shoppers avoid ice cream (13%) then do Unmotivated shoppers (5%).

When it comes to foods and beverages that are classified in today's world as "functional" (delivering benefits beyond those inherent to the food), "Functional foods are familiar foods. From oats and oranges to fortified water and whole grains, consumers find nutritional solutions believable," Gilbert says. "They recognize the health advantages of these foods and find comfort in their goodness."

Beverages account for about half of all foods classified as functional. The reasons for this functional beverage boom are obvious. The liquid medium (i.e., juice, milk, water or yogurt) carrying the functional ingredients possesses an intrinsically healthful image. Plus, beverages can be made to be very convenient through the use of on-the-go, individual-unit packaging.

"In Europe, much value-added dairy is ‘active-functional' dairy," says Gail Barnes, marketing mgr., Tetra Pak Carton Chilled Inc., Vernon Hills, Ill. "Consumers are choosing these dairy foods and beverages for reasons other than needing to eat something to relieve hunger pains. They are trying to prevent an illness or ailment. For example, in Finland, Valio Dairy recently rolled out ‘shot-packs' of the Evolus dairy drink, which contain a daily dose of bioactive peptides that have been fermented by lactic acid and shown to help control blood pressure."

Valio also now offers the Benecol dairy drink in 100-ml shot-packs. The Benecol drink includes plant stanol esters, which are known for their cholesterol-lowering ability.

Today's age-defying society is combing the shelves for products that prevent rather than cure. This is apparent by the numerous anti-wrinkling, anti-aging cosmetics in the marketplace, as well as by the astronomical growth that the cosmetic surgery industry has experienced in recent years.

"However, consumers can get a lot of these benefits by choosing the right foods, and dairy makes the ideal carrier," says Barnes. "However, if the U.S. dairy industry does not move quickly, the juice and water people will. It is already happening."

It sure will be a shame if U.S. consumers continue on the track of thinking they can get their vitamins and minerals from a fortified bottle of water, or their probiotics and fiber from juice.

Opportunities for dairy

In addition to dairy being an ideal carrier for functional ingredients, let's not forget that dairy foods, all by themselves, are ideal wellness foods.

In today's food environment, there exist numerous opportunities to effectively market dairy foods for their health and wellness halo. First, there's the whole FDA anti-obesity initiative. Second, there's the dairy industry's incredibly timely rollout of the "Healthy Weight with Dairy" campaign.

Obesity is indeed the number-one topic in all forms of media today, and the reason the government is stepping in is because obese citizens are at risk for many diseases including type-two diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. An increase in the occurrences of these diseases puts a financial burden on the U.S. healthcare system, pressures and responsibilities that the government is not prepared for. So, the powers that be in the United States have decided to try and fix the problem.

FDA's anti-obesity initiative includes potential changes for food labels.

"One such potential change includes the use of comparative label statements to help consumers make healthier substitutions," says Cary Frye, v.p. of regulatory affairs, International Dairy Foods Assn. (IDFA), Washington, D.C. "Take this label claim for example: Instead of cherry pie, try our delicious low-fat cherry yogurt, which has 29% fewer calories and 86% less fat."

Part of FDA's anti-obesity initiative also includes helping consumers once again understand the importance of counting calories. Remember calories? Those little units of energy consumed through foods and beverages. At one time, dieters minimized caloric intake in order to lose weight. Calorie consciousness was replaced by limiting fat grams in the 1990s, and at the turn-of-the-century, fat was displaced by carbohydrates.

With all the dieting trends, one thing has not changed; calories are still calories, and calories equate to energy. Unburned energy converts to excess weight, usually in the form of body fat.

Registered dieticians have known this simple fact forever, and are likely thrilled with FDA's message to consumers that "calories count."

"More potential changes for food labels include use of dietary guidance claims such as: To manage your weight, balance the calories you eat with physical exercise," says Frye. "It is also likely that Nutrition Facts labels will require a larger font size for calorie content and a percent Daily Value for calories, instead of listing the number of calories from fat."

For packages that contain more than one serving, FDA would like to see a Nutrition Facts for the entire contents of the package if it can be reasonably consumed in a single eating occasion. This is important for many beverages in the marketplace that often contain two to three servings in a single on-the-go bottle.

Today's consumers often choose foods that help them prepare for a “well” tomorrow.
When it comes to the "Healthy Weight with Dairy" campaign, which is a collaborative effort by IDFA, the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP) and Dairy Management Inc.™ (DMI), the opportunities to position dairy foods as the leading weight loss and wellness food are incredible.

The campaign includes national advertising and local marketing efforts to tout scientific research that suggests a link between dairy consumption and reduced body weight. The campaign reminds consumers that dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt may help in weight loss efforts when paired with a reduced-calorie, low-fat diet. The campaign also reminds consumers of the importance of getting enough exercise. All of this plays right into FDA's anti-obesity initiative. Perfect timing!

Scientists are still studying why dairy is so important, but preliminary research suggests that calcium plays a role in the body's natural system for burning fat. "This research, some of which was sponsored by the check off-funded National Dairy Council®, provides science-based support for the positive role dairy can play in weight management," says DMI CEO Tom Gallagher.

This generic industry campaign, which has been in place since October, has paved the way for efforts by individual dairy companies. These efforts include licensing the dairy-weight loss claim that DMI acquired the rights to from lead researcher and patent-holder Michael Zemel and the University of Tennessee. This weight loss claim is available to all companies marketing qualifying dairy products through an exclusive arrangement with DMI and IDFA. (For more information, visit

"The goal is to energize as many companies as possible to share the great news about dairy and weight loss, and to provide marketing and regulatory guidelines for use in advertising, on-pack labels and point-of-sale materials," says Frye.

In the end, the dairy industry simply wants the rest of the world to understand and benefit from the wares we tout:
Dairy: The original wellness food.

Sidebar: Hunting for Healthful Milkfat Solutions

Adding value to dairy foods through nutritional boosts is not new news (i.e., vitamin D fortification dates back to the 1920s); however, some of today's researchers are truly on the hunt for innovative ways to do so.

After a U.S. Senate committee reported in July 2003 that "learning disabilities and behavioral disorders have been linked to low serum levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Therefore, particular attention should be paid to developing food choices that are high in omega-3 fatty acids," companies responded. Mercedes, Texas-based H&H Foods, one of the nation's leading suppliers of school meals, with help from its supplier, developed a process to fortify school foods with omega-3 fatty acids. The omega-3-enhanced foods include breakfast tacos, tamales and cheese sauces and have been available in select Texas markets since February.

In Canada, dairy farmers are taking a different approach. They are feeding cows omega-3-rich herring, along with their grain and hay. The milk from these cows does not taste fishy, yet contains fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids. Nielson Dairy, Ontario, recently introduced such an omega-3-rich milk at a price 20% higher than regular milk

In Northern Ireland, researchers are adding the seeds used to make canola oil, which are rich in omega-3s, into the diet of dairy cows. The result: The amount of saturated fat in the cows milk is reduced, which therefore reduces the amount of saturated fat in products made from the milk. The researchers were able to reduce the percentage of saturated fat from 64% to just over 50%, while raising the percentage of unsaturated fat from 35% to 46%. Interestingly, the project was originally commissioned by Dale Farms Ltd., Northern Ireland's largest dairy producer, with the goal of creating a butter that spread when it came right of the refrigerator. Though spreadable butter was the purpose of the project, the new, healthier milk has a great deal of potential in today's supermarket jungle.

Photo Source: Forbes Chocolate

Sidebar: Milk and Chocolate: Quite Likely One of the Best Combinations in the World

Certain types of cocoa and chocolate, typically of very high quality and on the darker side, serve up a generous helping of antioxidants called flavonoids, which are associated with being good for the heart. Among the flavonoids are the monomeric flavanols epicatechin and catechin. Larger molecules built from these monomeric units are found in abundance in cocoa and chocolate, and not in other plant foods or beverages. These compounds not only contribute significantly to the reaction chemistry and development of flavor during the manufacture of chocolate, but may also have physiological function.

The most recent research on the health benefits of consuming cocoa and chocolate were published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. (August 2003), and included results from two clinical studies conducted in Germany. The outcomes from both studies support earlier research findings, which suggest that certain chocolates and cocoas, when consumed as part of a healthful diet, may offer a number of cardiovascular benefits.

Previous research suggests that flavanoids may have positive effects on vascular function, but the mechanisms through which these effects take place has always been unknown. In one of the new studies, researchers tested the hypothesis that the consumption of a flavanol-rich cocoa product can improve endothelial function, and that this improvement is related to an increase in circulating nitric oxide concentrations.

Researchers selected 20 participants with at least one cardiovascular risk factor and, using a double-blind, randomized, crossover design, studied the effects of consuming a high-flavanol cocoa beverage or a low-flavanol control beverage on flow-mediated dilation (FMD), a measure of endothelial-dependent dilation.

The high-flavanol cocoa product was the drink Positively Healthy Cocoa Beverage, which is a cocoa-rich, skimmed milk shot-style drink from U.K.-based The Positive Food Co., a member of the Masterfoods Group of Mars Inc., McLean, Va. Researchers found that participants who consumed Positively Healthy Cocoa Beverage demonstrated increased FMD, which peaked two hours post-consumption. Those who drank the control beverage did not show a change in FMD. The improvement in FMD response among those who consumed the flavanol-rich beverage was positively correlated with plasma nitrosothiol concentrations. The researchers concluded that a single dose of the high-flavanol cocoa beverage appeared to significantly improve endothelial function and increased nitric oxide concentrations in participants' blood. These data suggest that one mechanism underlying the vascular benefits of flavanols may be through their ability to influence nitric oxide availability.

Photo Source: OCG Cacao U.S.
A few years ago, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco reported that certain types of dark chocolate caused blood vessel dilation within two hours of consumption. Blood vessel dilation is believed to be an important indicator of healthy blood vessel function and a healthy cardiovascular system. An even earlier Penn State study investigated how flavonoids in cocoa and dark chocolate are absorbed and metabolized in humans. The eight-week study involved 10 men and 13 women between 21 and 62 years of age. Half the group ate a "typical American diet" intentionally low in flavonoids. The other half ate the same diet with one difference-the daily addition of small amounts of cocoa (0.75oz) and dark chocolate (0.50oz). After four weeks, the two groups switched diets.

Blood tests clearly showed that while the subjects were on the cocoa-chocolate containing diet, they had higher high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol levels. This is important because a higher ratio of HDL to low density lipoproteins (LDL) is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease. Also, oxidation in the subjects' bodies while on the cocoa-chocolate diet occurred at an 8% slower rate compared to when they ate the typical American diet. This is beneficial because oxidation is linked with arterial damage and hardening of the arteries.

The quality and quantity of flavonoids in raw cocoa beans are very high relative to fruits and vegetables and other common foods such as black tea and red wine. However, the amount of flavonoids in chocolate products, including chocolate-flavored milk, depends in part on the quality of the cocoa or chocolate ingredient and on how the finished products are processed.

Imagine the opportunities in formulating a shot-style chocolate-dairy drink that not only contains all the benefits of cocoa but also all the benefits of milk.

Sidebar: Nutty Health Claim

When it comes to nut ingredients, use tends to be limited to frozen desserts. When they are added to a formulation, they provide crunch, flavor and texture. Nuts are able to turn an ordinary ice cream or dairy-based dessert into a premium product. And, since July 2003, adding nuts to a product provides it with a healthful halo thanks to an FDA-approved qualified health claim associated with nut consumption.

More recently, walnuts have been given the thumbs-up by FDA for companies to state on packages of chopped and whole walnuts that "supportive but not conclusive research" shows eating 1.5oz of walnuts each day could help fight heart disease. The claim must also include that the walnuts must be part of a low-saturated fat and low-cholesterol diet.

What developments led to this landmark claim, the first of its kind since FDA had lifted the ban on food producers from making health claims about products unless the agency decided they were conclusive? Well, walnuts, as compared to all nuts, are particularly beneficial because they are the leading plant source of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s have been found to lower overall cholesterol and blood pressure, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, fight arthritis, improve brain and vision development and relieve depression.

The initial health benefits of walnuts surfaced in 1993 in a Loma Linda University study showing that walnuts can lower low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol) by as much as 16%. More recently, a study out of the University of Barcelona showed that a diet including walnuts can reverse artery damage.

Granted, a serving of maple black walnut ice cream will not contain 1.5oz of walnuts; however, say it contains a half ounce and says so on the front label. This could be attractive to consumers looking to increase their daily nut consumption.