Since 1998, the International Food Information Council has taken Americans’ temperature on the topic of functional foods and beverages. The IFIC assesses their attitudes and awareness and gives the industry an idea of precisely what consumers look for when they shop for products that promise benefits beyond basic nutrition.

Maybe not precisely. If the cumulative insights of the biannual IFIC “Functional Foods Consumer Survey” prove anything, it’s that the more things change, the more they change. Just consider the latest iteration. In a first, the 2013 report examined what consumers think about “processed” foods, as well as their receptivity to fortification and what motivates some, but not others, to lean on functional foods to top up their nutrient intakes.

The survey revealed that 67% now see functional foods as either highly or moderately processed — a distinction that doesn’t exactly endear them to a public increasingly wary of all things processed. What’s more, over half of respondents prefer the notion of getting functional nutrients from foods where those nutrients appear naturally, compared to 3% who lean toward choosing a fortified product as their preferred source.

So does this sound the death knell for functional fortification? Hardly, said Mike Bush, senior vice president, Ganeden Inc., Cleveland, and executive board president of the International Probiotics Association (IPA), Los Angeles. Rather, the IFIC findings merely “show that consumers are becoming more aware of what they’re eating, and have an interest in looking for additional health benefits in everyday foods and beverages,” he said.

And it’s in formulating those “everyday foods and beverages” that dairy marketers can choose ingredients that better mirror consumers’ evolving definitions of functionality. Over the next few years, Bush believes, “the focus will be on innovative, complete-nutrition products manufactured with high-quality, science-backed ingredients targeted at cross-functional market segments.” That’s a broad focus, but it’s what functional formulation is shaping up to be.

Changing perceptions

A deep dive into the IFIC survey uncovers some sentiments that understandably give processors pause. Case in point: Besides conflating “fortified” with “processed” and favoring “natural” functionality over added nutrients, respondents — to the tune of 37% and 34%, respectively — prefer the “purity of basic foods with nothing added” and express skepticism of manufacturers’ motives “for adding health components to so many products.”

Granted, neither 37% nor 34% represents much more than a third of those surveyed. But such perceptions reflect a prevailing mood among shoppers that industry is keen to understand. As Benoit Turpin, vice president, international sales – human nutrition, Milk Specialties Global, Eden Prairie, Minn., put it, “My impression is that functionality is evolving from foods with added nutrients — quite often more on the processed side of the equation — toward rather less-processed foods, naturally dense in health-promoting benefits.”

But processors still wonder: why such wariness about processing? One easy explanation is the Internet and the profusion of information it spits at informed and low-engagement shoppers alike. As Bill Driessen, director, Central Region and Latin America, Taiyo International, Inc., Minneapolis, pointed out, “Consumers are bombarded daily with all sorts of marketing messages.”

As food and beverage brands strain to project their functional stories above the din, the cacophony can leave consumers with a case of message fatigue, which itself “leads to a feeling of indifference toward marketing messages on all products,” Driessen said. The upshot: confounded by the profusion of choice, consumers “fall back on the premise that ‘less processed’ and ‘natural’ are better,” he said.

Functional fortification not dead yet

But marketers who believe in the value of functional formulation shouldn’t throw in the towel yet. For amidst the survey’s revelations about consumer skepticism are equal and opposite findings showing that over half of respondents still consider fortified foods “worthwhile,” while two thirds out-and-out trust functional foods. So, as is often the case with contemporary consumers, manufacturers have to navigate a degree of cognitive dissonance when formulating to their demands.

Nowhere is that dissonance more apparent than in the gulf between what consumers say about their preferences for “natural” and “whole” nutrition and what they actually eat. Best intentions notwithstanding, less than one third of survey respondents get the DRI for vitamin D, only 5% consume recommended levels of fiber and less than 3%  take in sufficient calcium — which lays bare a nutrition gap that functional foods can fill.

And even whole-food idealists would agree that a functionally fortified food is a more palatable vehicle for nutrition than a supplement. As Bush noted, “The beauty of functional foods is that consumers can get their desired health benefits from foods and beverages that they already enjoy without taking another pill.” He cited a recent survey finding that 70% of respondents prefer to consume probiotics in a food or beverage rather than in a supplement, with 40% to 54% willing to pay more to do so.

And functional foods are considerably more convenient than cooking from scratch, Turpin pointed out. “In an era of mandatory portability and destructured home meals, consumers still search for foods that deliver the nutrients and functionality they crave” —without the fuss, he said.

Foods, not ingredients

Again, Mark Cope, applied nutrition manager, DuPont Nutrition & Health, St. Louis, Mo., believes that what may be holding consumers back from a full embrace of functional foods is that profusion of choice.

“The shortfalls in the category today are around the rather large influx of functional foods” on the market, he said. “The public may become hesitant to believe that all of these new products can really deliver the promised health benefits.”

To bend their curve of belief, formulators should do two things: provide sufficient “science to support the health benefits” their products promise, he said, and create products using ingredients that consumers feel good about.

As for the latter, Carol Lowry, senior food scientist, Cargill, Minneapolis, noted that the “big push to simplify ingredient lists” is just as strong in the functional sphere as across the broader food industry. In some cases, that means sourcing functional ingredients with organic or non-GMO origins, while in others, ingredients with “free-from” and “clean-label” credibility are the emphases.

Whatever road they take, formulators really score points by using functional ingredients that consumers view less as “ingredients” than as real foods.

“Today’s consumers want to recognize what’s in their foods and beverages and know where it’s coming from,” Lowry noted, and the IFIC survey proves it. To wit, 40% to 50% of respondents were more likely to buy a snack bar that got its nutrition from a whole food — say, soy or cocoa beans — than from a synthetic ingredient.

To Rikka Cornelia, product manager, BI Nutraceuticals, Long Beach, Calif., this merely demonstrates that “what’s changed a lot is consumers’ perception of fortification with nutrients versus whole-food ingredients.”

Consider green tea. Once upon a time, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) from green tea was “the sought-after nutrient,” she said, prompting industry to produce a number of EGCG extracts for functional use. “And though they’re still widely available, we’re seeing more interest in whole green-tea powder,” she continued, which suits not only consumers, but manufacturers who find the powder just as easy to incorporate into applications as extracts.

Dairy advantage

“Indeed,” observed Turpin, “we’re now more readily finding nutrient-dense foods as ingredients,” which should redound to dairy’s benefit as milk-derived ingredients “have always enjoyed a ‘healthy,’ ‘good-for-you,’ ‘nutrient-dense’ and ‘close-to-nature’ image,” he said.

Even beyond “natural” dairy ingredients, functionally fortified dairy applications have a better shot at winning over skeptics if for no other reason than consumers already look to dairy products for whole-food nutrition, generally.

As Cornelia said, “Dairy’s inherent nutritional profile means that marketing extra functionality doesn’t require as much convincing as other categories do.” Formulators, she said, “should use this built-in acceptance to their advantage.”

Many are. “We’ve seen a lot of fortification of yogurts, as well as other cultured applications, such as yogurt drinks, with ingredients like probiotics, protein, vitamins and minerals,” said Vicky Fligel, business development manager, ingredient technologies, Glanbia Nutritionals, Fitchburg, Wis. “Some vitamins, such as D and K2, and minerals like calcium have always been linked to dairy products, and they have a direct link to bone health and cardiovascular health. Probiotics are also commonly used in dairy products for digestive health.”

Dairy smoothies, added Driessen, also “lend themselves to being fortified because they attract consumers familiar with diet and exercise.” Such performance-minded and active consumers expect — and may need — additional nutrition,” he said, and gravitate toward protein, fiber and vitamins and minerals when looking for it.

Protein power

Protein, in particular, appears to strike shoppers as an inherently healthful and wholesome addition to just about any dairy product, functional or otherwise. According to Fligel, using dairy proteins in functional dairy applications makes sense not only conceptually, but “because of their established links to satiety, weight management, healthy aging, digestive health and other benefits, such as energy.”

The degree to which consumers consider dairy proteins “processed” will depend on the proteins and consumers, but Fligel describes the most common method used to produce dairy proteins as a “simple filtration” that proceeds “without any additives.” That said, she thinks it’s in processors’ best interest “to provide as much transparency as possible, and to educate consumers on the process so as to change the perception” that functional ingredients like dairy proteins are somehow “unnatural.”

And while formulators working with “natural” functional ingredients often need to include overages and “most likely face bigger sensory and heat-stability challenges,” Turpin noted, “on the dairy-protein side of things, this will not be the case, especially when focusing on milk protein concentrates and isolates.”

Encroaching onto dairy proteins’ turf are vegetarian options that, boosters say, complement rather than compete with dairy. Tyler Lorenzen, president, proteins and ingredients, World Food Processing, Minneapolis, believes there’s “a place for plant proteins within dairy applications for many reasons. Whether it’s for cost stability, sustainability or even amino-acid composition, in everything from sports nutrition to breakfast foods, we see these proteins making sense.”

Soy is the veteran vegetarian protein, but upstart pulses are riding a wave of adulation. Manufacturers appreciate that they bring protein nutrition and operational benefits to formulations.

Fiber files

What consumer wouldn’t like some fiber along with their protein? Beneo Inc., Morris Plains, N.J., commissioned research, conducted in the United States by Health Focus International, showing that, “almost three out of four consumers are actively looking for fiber to make sure that they eat a sufficient amount,” said Jon Peters, Beneo president. Additionally, “an overwhelming” 93% responded that fiber is good for their overall health, with their awareness of its digestive and weight-management benefits similarly high.

Yet even conscientious consumers find it “hard to achieve the goal of consuming 25 grams per day,” Peters continued, “which is why it’s so important to have a diet consisting of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains — and, also, fiber-enriched products.”

Popular ingredients for fiber enrichment include inulin and oligofructose sourced from chicory root. Peters said his company extracts its inulin and oligofructose from non-GMO sources using hot-water extraction, allowing manufacturers to classify both “as foods from natural origin and label them as fiber from a natural source.”

Benefits to consumers include the fiber boost, along with the lower calorie content of 1.5 kcal/gram relative to sugar’s 4 kcal/gram. Even better, the ingredients deliver a “mild, sweet taste,” Peters said, without triggering an insulin response or rise in blood sugar. Both oligofructose and inulin can replace sugar in yogurt fruit preparations and aid sugar reduction in the dairy base, where long-chain inulin creates “a fat-like creaminess under shear force for excellent texture and a creamy mouthfeel” in reduced-fat formulations, he said.

Flourishing flora

As a prebiotic, chicory-root fiber speaks to consumers choosing dairy expressly for digestive benefits. That makes it “a good addition to yogurts and other fermented beverages fortified with probiotics,” Lowry said. “Studies have shown that 5 grams of chicory root fiber per day not only add fiber to the diet but also help feed normal beneficial probiotic bacteria in the gut,” she noted, where they stimulate Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium and “help to maintain a neutral balance” without “affecting the taste or texture of the final product.”

And when it comes to functional dairy, fermented applications like yogurt and kefir set the standard. But the addition of specific probiotic strains beyond those that occur naturally makes sense, Bush said, as not all yogurt cultures are probiotic. Further, not all probiotics can survive the processing and storage environments common to dairy products — fermented or otherwise — which is why specialized probiotic strains allow processors to explore new opportunities for probiotic fortification.

“Our own experience has shown us that the functional-food space is exploding,” Bush said, “and we see no end in sight to consumer demand for quality, scientifically backed, functionally fortified foods and beverages.” While some processors will continue to “pixie-dust” products with dubious ingredients — and some consumers will continue to doubt the results — “fortification with quality ingredients,” he believes, “will certainly continue.”