FDA does not recognize the term functional foods, but the industry certainly does. Datamonitor estimates that the average U.S. consumer now spends $90 a year on functional foods. Dairy foods are a leading delivery vehicle for numerous functional ingredients. 

Functional foods . . . our government might not recognize the term, but we-the industry-do. It provides a frame of reference and assists formulators and marketers with offering consumers foods and beverages that meet their individual needs. Those individual needs are growing into a very large consumer goods segment, one that dairy processors cannot afford to ignore.

Datamonitor, which defines functional foods as “everyday packaged food and beverage products that contain specific physiologically active components that provide health and well-being benefits beyond basic nutritional functions,” estimates that the average U.S. consumer spent $90 in 2007 on functional foods. This translates to a market that exceeded $27 billion in 2007 and is projected to reach $36.7 billion in 2012.

Why no legal definition?

How can a market be so large and yet not be defined by FDA?

Let’s take a step back. At the inaugural Food Technology Presents conference (February 2008) coordinated by the Institute of Food Technologists, Chicago, Barbara Schneeman, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition stated that there is sufficient FDA regulatory structure under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) to review potential health claims. Consequently, FDA does not intend to define the term functional foods.

Schneeman’s statement collaborates with similar language posted on FDA’s Web site, which provides food labeling instruction that is required for most prepared foods. Recently, FDA released an updated version of this instruction entitled Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide. Published in April 2008, this guide replaces the September 1994 version and provides new information on allergen labeling, trans fat labeling, qualified health claims and structure/function claims. Using a question-and-answer format, the guide also includes updated information on product name, net contents statements, ingredient listing, nutrition labeling and claims. While considered guidance, the FDA document summarizes regulatory and legal requirements for labeling statements, which are very important when dealing with claims made on functional foods.

FDA receives many questions from manufacturers, distributors and importers about the proper labeling of their food products. Under FDA’s laws and regulations, the agency does not pre-approve labels for food products. Thus, this guide is essential for making sure labels comply with current policy. This guidance is a summary of the required statements that must appear on food labels under these laws and their regulations. To help minimize legal action and delays, it is recommended that manufacturers and importers become fully informed about the applicable laws and regulations before offering foods, particularly functional foods, for distribution in the United States. The guide is available at www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/2lg-toc.html.

Keeping it functional

A timely interpretation of functional foods is that they are all about health and wellness, the buzz words of the decade.

“Health and wellness for food companies is no longer an option-it’s the price of doing business,” said Cathy Kapica, vice president, global health and wellness for public relations firm Ketchum, N.Y., and a speaker at the Food Technology Presents conference. “Health is the new wealth.”

This interpretation of functional foods has created tremendous opportunity for food and beverage manufacturers, since shoppers are seeking products that will preserve and improve their health. Specifically, Kapica cited a series of converging trends that have given birth to what she termed “the age of well-being.” They include the aging and affluent population, rising healthcare costs, the increased incidence of obesity and consumer interest in “prevention versus pills.”

Conference presenter Wendy Kapsak, director of health and nutrition for the International Food Information Council (IFIC), Washington, D.C., shared recent research results regarding functional foods. “More Americans than ever before are concerned about nutrition and diet,” she said. (To download a complete copy of the study, visit www.ific.org.)

In 2007, the number of consumers who reported making changes to improve the healthfulness of their diet climbed to 66%, as compared to 57% the prior year, according to IFIC research. Further, 95% of those surveyed said that food and nutrition played a great (75%) or moderate (20%) role in maintaining or improving overall health.

Although they don’t use the term “functional foods,” consumers have some understanding of the concept, Kapsak reports. “Most people do believe that certain foods do have components that provide them with benefits that would impact their overall health.”

Results from the survey allowed IFIC to develop a list of the top-10 functional foods. (See table on page 44.) “Milk and other dairy products” rank third. Interestingly, many of the other nine functional foods can be added to dairy foods, making dairy the delivery vehicle for functional foods such as fruits and vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids (associated with item No. 2: fish, fish oil, seafood), whole grains, fiber, green tea, herbs/spices and nuts.

Does this potentially create a new category: super functional food? Some dairy marketers see this as an opportunity. Regional supermarket chain Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., recently debuted Wegmans Organic Super Yogurt. Each 6-oz cup is loaded with pre- and probiotics and 32mg of the omega-3s docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). The fruit flavors prominently display whole fruit on the front labels.  

The dairy connection

An impressive 92% of consumers in the IFIC study could name a specific food and its associated benefit, up from 77% who could do so in 1998. Specifically, 89% of consumers are aware that calcium in dairy foods such as milk, cheese, or yogurt or in calcium-fortified foods or beverages promotes bone health. Fifty-six percent are already consuming such foods and 37% are likely or somewhat likely to consume such foods in the future.

Eighty-six percent of consumers surveyed know that fiber helps maintain a healthy digestive system, and 81% understand that vitamin D promotes bone health.

Without a doubt, omega-3 fatty acids are the talk of the year. Though 76% of consumers are aware of their association with reducing the risk of heart disease, only 45% are currently consuming omega-3s, either via fish in the diet or omega-3 fortified foods such as dairy products. However, 44% say they are likely or somewhat likely to start consuming omega-3s.

With omega-3s, 53% of those surveyed are aware of their association with cognitive development, especially in children. Forty-one percent currently report their use, while an impressive 46% say they are likely or somewhat likely to include omega-3s in the diet for this reason.

Companies such as Disney Consumer Products, Glendale, Calif., and Stremicks Heritage Foods, Santa Ana, Calif., are making it easier for kids to get their omega-3s. New Disney Little Einsteins Milk is enriched with 32mg of omega-3 DHA per serving to support brain and eye development and the heart’s health through every stage of life. It is the first Disney-branded refrigerated dairy beverage to launch since Disney announced its food guidelines in 2006. Disney Little Einsteins Milk is available as a 64-oz package in low-fat 1% and reduced-fat 2%.

“The Disney brand and characters are in a unique position to market beverages that kids want and parents feel good about,” says Lance Gatewood, vice president of food, health and beauty for Disney Consumer Products North America. “Disney has a long-term commitment to the health of kids around the world through its new food guidelines, which require the Disney name and its characters to be associated with kid-focused products that limit calories, fat, saturated fat and sugar.”

Sam Stremick, director of sales and marketing for Stremicks, adds, “Teaming with Disney provides the opportunity to create healthy products that kids will identify with, while enabling parents to provide a highly nutritional and great-tasting beverage that their children will want to drink. The new Little Einsteins milk line provides parents with an easy option for incorporating nutrients like calcium and DHA into their children’s diets to ensure optimal growth and development.”

Recognizing that chocolate milk isn’t just for kids anymore, Omega Farms, Hayward, Calif., adds Omega Farms Low-Fat Chocolate Milk to its omega-3-enhanced dairy products line up.

“Chocolate milk is a classic for kids and a modern sports recovery product for athletes,” says Cindy DiFerdinand, nutritionist with Omega Farms. “Will omega-3s help you find lost keys or turn your child into an honor student? It’s unlikely that any food can replace an active mind and good study habits. But the link between consumption of omega-3s and benefits to brain function is getting stronger. It’s thrilling to consider the potential that may exist.”

As for athletes and post-exercise replenishment, studies suggest that chocolate milk is the perfect balance of carbohydrates and protein to help refuel tired muscles after a rigorous workout.  In fact, a study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism builds on findings that intense endurance exercise reduces the muscles’ supply of stored glucose, or glycogen, a key source of fuel for exercise. To maximize glycogen replacement, the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Dietetic Association recommend taking in a serving of carbohydrates within 30 minutes after a long and vigorous workout.

An Indiana University study entitled “The Efficacy of Chocolate Milk as a Recovery Aid” also tested chocolate milk versus sports drinks and found chocolate milk has the magic 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio and was as good as or better than the sports drink for performance, heart rate, perceived exertion and lactate levels.

Other universities are testing the benefits of chocolate milk on sports recovery too. Both the Boise State University and California State University-Fresno athletic departments have introduced chocolate milk into their conditioning programs.

The pre's and pro's

Probiotics have also come into stardom during the past year. An impressive 58% of consumers are aware of their association with maintaining a healthy digestive system, as compared to only 49% of consumers in 2005. Further, 41% of those surveyed say they are already consuming probiotics and 45% are likely or somewhat likely to very soon. Fifty-four percent understand the probiotics and boosting immunity connection, as compared to 46% in 2005. And though only 37% of those surveyed are consuming probiotics for this reason, 48% say they are likely or somewhat likely to do so in the future.

The potential for probiotics is huge, since their benefits are enormous and their use seems to have virtually no side effects. Exploiting friendly microorganisms also fits with the trend to promote health and wellness while treating certain conditions with fewer prescription medications.

Thus, it is no surprise that all types of functional foods manufacturers are jumping on the probiotics bandwagon. These good-for-you bugs can be found in milk, yogurt, cheese, juice, nutrition bars, breakfast cereals . . . and now, condiments.

That’s right. Zukay Live Foods, Elverson, Pa., is rolling out probiotic ketchup, salsa and relish. The company describes the products as a symbiosis of live cultures with fresh raw ingredients in a non-dairy base. All Zukay products feature a mix of Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium and Streptococcus thermophilus.

Some would argue that S. thermophilus is not probiotic. So the question arises: what are probiotics?

Mary Ellen Sanders, a probiotic microbiologist and consultant based in Centennial, Colo., and the executive director of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics, says, “There are a lot of products calling themselves probiotic foods, but we don’t know if they have efficacious levels of bacteria. To be probiotic, the live microorganisms must confer a health benefit to the host. To do so, they must be administered in adequate amounts and survive throughout the product’s shelflife.”

Sanders teamed up with Linda Douglas, a food science and nutrition consultant based in Lone Tree, Colo., who has many years of prebiotic experience, to co-author a must-read for all dairy processors either in or planning to enter the prebiotic and probiotic dairy foods business. Entitled “Probiotics and Prebiotics in Dietetics Practice” and published in the March 2008 edition of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the article can be obtained from www.adajournal.org.

This comprehensive review suggests that prebiotics are valuable dietary additions for modulating the growth and activity of specific bacterial species in the colon that are considered health supporting. They may also provide support for the survival and growth of intentionally consumed bacterial species, including some probiotic strains.

Further, prebiotics are associated with improving digestive health, another buzz phrase of the decade. Digestive health has been proclaimed the biggest segment of the functional food market, with the demand for digestive health products showing no signs of slowing down. 

One of the reasons is that we are living longer. In fact, the mean age continues to increase, resulting in a higher percentage of the population above the age of 65. In this elderly population, well-being is closely associated with leading an active, healthy and independent life. Nutritional strategies to decrease morbidity and to prolong life are therefore of great interest. The reduction in overall health that occurs during the aging process is often accompanied by an increase in chronic and acute infections, many of which have their origins in the gastrointestinal tract. To maintain good health at advanced age, an optimal balance of the intestinal tract and its microbiota is especially important. Prebiotic and probiotic synbiotic supplementation has been shown to restore the intestinal ecology and to improve well-being in the elderly.

According to Innova Market Insights, The Netherlands, the future of prebiotics remains extremely positive, with many sectors now reaping the benefits that prebiotics have to offer. The dairy, bakery and cereals sectors continue to be the most successful, with dairy accounting for nearly 50% of prebiotic products currently on the market.

Weight management

The newest players in the functional foods category address weight management, in terms of both weight loss and satiety. This category is expected to double in size during the next five years as it evolves from being a bar and beverage business to one involving super-satiating foods, including dairy products.

This evolution includes a change in thinking, as consumers no longer view weight management as dieting. Rather, it’s a way of life. This is exemplified by Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods’ renaming of its South Beach Diet line to South Beach Living.

Without a doubt, satiety is a new weapon in the war on weight. The forerunners in this category are Dannon Light & Fit Crave Control yogurt and LightFull Satiety Smoothies, both of which are based on a unique blend of protein and fiber. 

Suppliers are debuting innovative ingredient combinations claiming to induce satiety. One example is a combination of oat and palm oils (both naturally occurring dietary lipids) that is formulated into a novel emulsion. It is thought to work by preventing the digestion of palm oil droplets until relatively deep in the small intestine. Because undigested fat arriving in the ileum (the latter part of the small intestine) triggers an appetite satisfied signal to the brain, consumers are able to reduce their calorie intake and still feel satisfied.

Another such ingredient is derived from the nuts of the Korean pine tree (Pinus koraiensis). It, too, has been shown to stimulate the feeling of satiety by triggering the release of hunger-suppressing hormones in the gut that act as an important appetite control mechanism.

A dairy-derived ingredient containing partially hydrolyzed whey protein isolate, peptides and milk minerals has been shown to reduce body fat and maintain lean muscle mass. And conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is inherent in cows milk but also produced for use as a food ingredient from purified vegetable oil, has been shown to decrease body fat while at the same time, increase lean muscle mass. All of these weight management ingredients have application in functional dairy foods.

In conclusion, the future is bright for functional foods. Dairy foods will play an important role in this growing movement towards health and wellness foods and beverages.  

Sidebar: Targeting Life Stages

For a long time, marketers believed that consumers were in denial when it came to entering older life stages and as a result would never blatantly address the body’s changing needs as it ages. Well, times are changing. 

Kao Brands Co., Cincinnati, makes a bold move with the introduction of Curél Skincare Life’s Stages moisturizers. This introduction of three skincare products designed for specific periods in a woman’s life is paving the way for other consumer products goods companies to formulate for specific demographic segments. 

“Factors such as hormonal fluctuations and the simple passage of time have a profound impact on every part of our bodies, including our skin,” says Dermatologist Diane Berson. “Each of the three formulas in the Life’s Stages collection from Curél Skincare is specifically formulated to counter the side effects our skin suffers from during a major biological event in our lives.”

Curél nurturing comfort Moisture Cream is for pregnancy and motherhood. Curél youth-defense Moisture Lotion is for the first signs of aging. Curél skin fortifying Moisture Lotion is for menopause and beyond.

Imagine yogurts or other dairy foods designed for similar life stages. They would be loaded with nutrients that the body demands more of during certain times of life. The opportunities are endless.

Sidebar: Top-10 Functional Foods

1. Fruits and vegetables
2. Fish, fish oil, seafood
3. Milk and other dairy products
4. Whole grains, including oats, oat bran, oatmeal
5. Fiber
6. Green tea
7. Meat, red meat, and chicken
8. Water
9. Herbs/spices
10. Nuts

Source: International Food Information Council (IFIC) Consumer Attitudes Toward Functional Foods, 2007

Sidebar: Functional Foods Task Force Celebrates 10 Years

The Functional Foods Task Force (FFTF) came together in 1999 as a strategic initiative of The Dairy Council of California (DCC), which is a government entity funded by California’s dairy producers and processors and dedicated to developing nutrition education programs. DCC strives to teach children and adults how to make healthy food choices from all food groups for lifelong health and wellness.

Comprised of academics, processors, suppliers and consultants, FFTF meets every year with DCC to provide insight and make speculations on the growing area of functional foods, particularly how dairy foods fit into this movement. The group most recently met in San Diego on April 3. Discussions focused on how to best position dairy foods within the current and future regulatory arena, the latest and greatest on whey proteins, how larger nutritional science issues might impact dairy foods, opportunities and barriers to positioning dairy products as functional foods, and more.

For information on DCC, visit www.dairycouncilofca.org.