Health and wellness knowledge

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WASHINGTON — Consumers are more aware of health-benefit pairings, such as calcium and bone health, in 2009 than they were in 2007. In some cases the increase in awareness reaches double-digit percentage points, such as omega-3 fatty acids and cognitive development, according to the 2009 International Food Information Council’s Functional Foods/Foods for Health Consumer Trending Survey.

Calcium and bone health, at 93% in 2009 compared with 89% in 2007, led in awareness among all health-benefit pairings. Awareness of omega-3 fatty acids for cognitive development, especially in children, jumped to 72% in 2009 from 53% in 2007. Other health-benefit pairings that saw double-digit percentage point gains in awareness included whole grains for reduced risk of heart disease, B vitamins for reduced risk of heart disease, probiotics for maintaining a healthy immune system and also for digestive health, folic acid for reduced risk of heart disease, and plant sterols for reduced risk of heart disease (see chart).

"When all the dots are connected and consumers are provided with three key pieces of information, including a beneficial food component, corresponding food sources, and associated health benefit, there was a significant increase in consumer awareness from 2007 for the majority of the 27 food and health pairs asked about in the survey," IFIC said in an executive summary of the functional foods survey. "Consumers are most aware of food/health benefit associations related to their greatest health concerns, such as cardiovascular disease, weight maintenance and cancer, as well as those that have been well-established and promoted over time, such as calcium for bone health or fiber for digestive health."

When asked to name their top two or three health concerns, 48% of survey respondents listed cardiovascular disease. Weight came in second at 31%, which was up from 14% in the 2000 survey. Cancer was third at 24%.

Seventy-two per cent said they believe food and nutrition plays a great role in improving overall health, and another 23% said they believe food and nutrition plays a moderate role. Fruits and vegetables were the top functional foods named by consumers followed by fish/fish oil/seafood.

IFIC added potential exists to increase consumption of foods known for health benefits.

"Despite an increase in consumer awareness for many of the food component/health-benefit associations, consumption has remained relatively stable," the executive summary said. "Increased exposure to specific foods and beverages with beneficial health compounds may serve to increase awareness and may result in higher consumption over time."

Typical barriers are taste, "do-ability," familiarity and cost, said David W. Grotto, a registered dietician and author of the book "101 Foods That Could Save Your Life." He spoke during an IFIC webinar Aug. 12.

Taste remains the No. 1 factor influencing purchases, he said. "Doability" refers to preparation, convenience and accessibility. Familiarity refers to consumer preference for familiar foods. Food manufacturers might be able to add a new ingredient, such as pomegranate, into a familiar product. For cost, consumers are looking for a "bang for the buck" when it comes to nutrients in products, he said. Consumers may work such products into their budget if they see a benefit.

A future direction for functional foods also may involve taking an addin focus vs. a take-away focus, Mr. Grotto said. For example, getting people to eat more potassium-rich fruits and vegetables may end up reducing the amount of sodium in their diet.

Also in the future, food and disease pairings may drive offerings and menu plans, and fortified foods, such as probiotic yogurts and drinks, may be an option, Mr. Grotto said. Of orange juice fortified with omega-3 fatty acids, he said, "That’s a win."

IFIC has conducted the functional foods survey every two to three years since 1998. This year’s survey involved 1,005 U.S. adults over age 18. They took an Internet-based survey May 11-20. The sample is subject to a maximum error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. IFIC defines functional foods as foods and beverages that may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition.

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