Taking concerns to heart

by Allison Sebolt
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While consumers don’t approach their eating first and foremost from a condition management perspective, heart health is still a consumer concern, said Shelley Balanko, vice-president of ethnographic research at The Hartman Group, Inc., Bellevue, Wash.

“While culturally food is really more about enjoyment than condition management, when they are thinking about the benefits they are looking for, heart health is the No. 1 priority,” Ms. Balanko said.

When asked about benefits consumers are seeking from enhanced foods and beverages, featuring functional ingredients, Ms. Balanko said heart health was the No. 1 benefit mentioned followed by bone health and lowering cholesterol. In fact, The Hartman Group found 57% of consumers seek heart health from enhanced foods and beverages. In addition, more than half of consumers are seeking to avoid trans fat, cholesterol, animal fat/butter and salt.

Overall, consumers’ No. 1 health and wellness objective is to lead a quality life. She said consumers understand heart health is key to both quality and length of life.

“They (manufacture’s) think the consumer is a little more orientated to health and looking for targeted functional benefits to a greater extent than the consumer is,” Ms. Balanko said. “What we hear consumers talk about is that holistic approach, they are looking for fresh, real and less processed foods.”

Ms. Balanko said when it comes to specific claims the one thing consumers aren’t very savvy about is ingredients. For example, she said when it comes to “omegas,” only a small percentage of consumers were able to articulate a benefit for omega-3 fatty acids and to identify heart health as that benefit.

“Consumers will respond better to claims that are attached to a particular active ingredient,” Ms. Balanko said. “The active ingredient alone doesn’t say it all.”

She said plant sterols are another area of heart health that will become more popular and consumers need to be offered more education.

“We would recommend to C.P.G. manufacturers to focus on the fact their products are high quality first, and their secondary level of messaging should be around the functional benefits,” Ms. Balanko said.

David Grotto, R.D., L.D.N. and author of “101 Foods That Could Save Your Life!”, said consumers are more concerned about the manifestation of health conditions and their impact on quality of life rather than the actual condition itself. For example, he sees people with underlying heart disease, but these patients might be specifically coming to him with concerns about energy and how to fight fatigue.

“The concern is there, but I think people have become somewhat numb to messages about what they can do about the heart disease or other threatening conditions. They seem to be much more receptive to the promise of something that affects their day-to-day health.”

Mr. Grotto said it seems there is almost over communication about heart disease, especially when it comes to claims on packages. He said consumers also still believe it’s going to happen to someone else instead of themselves.

Heart health is causing issues even for younger consumers, as several studies recently showcased why youths have reason to be conscious about heart health. A study to be published in The Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found being obese as early as seven years of age may raise a child’s risk of future heart disease and stroke even in the absence of other cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure.

“This new study demonstrates that the unhealthy consequences of excess body fat start very early,” said Nelly Mauras, senior author of the study. “Our study shows that obesity alone is linked to certain abnormalities in the blood that can predispose individuals to developing cardiovascular disease in early adulthood.

“These findings suggest we need more aggressive interventions for weight control in obese children, even those who do not have the co-morbidities of the metabolic syndrome.”

In addition, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently found 20% of teenagers 12 to 19 years have at least one abnormal lipid level, and abnormal lipid levels are major risk factors for heart disease.

“(Heart health messaging) really needs to be focusing in on messages of overall lifestyle,” Mr. Grotto said. “When you talk about this individual food having a health benefit, it’s got to be put in the context that it’s a part of an overall diet.”

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