Keith Nunes 2019KANSAS CITY — Interest in functional foods is accelerating in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the most sought benefits are important to know, also of great significance to food and beverage manufacturers is understanding who is seeking such products. Recent consumer surveys show broad acceptance, boding well for the future of the category.

Changing demographics are positioning functional products for growth, according to a report published by Mintel, the Chicago-based market researcher. By 2025, 41% of the population will be comprised of Gen Z and millennials. These younger consumers already are the most engaged in functional product usage and are more focused on diets that support both mental and physical well-being.

Older consumers represent another opportunity, since the proportion of consumers age 65 and above is growing at a faster rate than any other age group. Well-established, recognizable ingredients may resonate more with this group, because they are slower to adopt emerging health and wellness trends, according to Mintel.

“Functionality in food and drink has found its place within consumer routines, and curiosity in how diets can further support both physical and mental health is high, particularly among younger consumers,” said Alyssa Hangartner, consumer insights analyst, flavor and ingredient trends, at Mintel. “Increased emphasis on improving lifestyle habits and the definition of wellness on a personal level has left plenty of room for food and beverage innovation to meet consumers’ needs where they need it most.”

Consumers have been trying foods with ingredients they perceive will help them build immunity, prevent inflammation, aid their digestive health and relieve stress and anxiety, according to The NPD Group’s Health Aspirations and Behavioral Tracking Service, which tracks consumption habits linked to wellness goals and identifies mainstream trends for the Port Washington, NY-based researcher.

Boosting immunity and reducing inflammation were the top health concerns consumers tried to treat with food and food substances during the pandemic. For building immunity, among the top growing foods are elderberry and moringa. Elderberry, which from spring 2019 through fall of 2020 enjoyed an 88% jump in usage, also is considered anti-viral, and moringa is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties and helps with joint and heart health, according to The NPD Group. In addition to moringa, foods consumers increasingly are trying to prevent or reduce inflammation are turmeric and manuka honey.

Gut health is being addressed with bone broth, kombucha and jack fruit. CBD/cannabidiol oil, which grew in usage by 49% from spring 2019 through fall 2020, is another substance consumers are trying to help lower anxiety and stress.

“What’s important to food manufacturers and marketers moving forward is to understand which of these foods will remain a part of consumers’ diets long term and which will not,” said Darren Seifer, The NPD Group’s food and beverage industry analyst.

The pandemic changed many consumer routines, most notably where people work, shop and eat. It also is changing how they perceive many foods and ingredients, and those with a clear functional benefit may enjoy rising interest in the years ahead.