"Functional" foods that improve eyesight and boost immunity growing worldwide

From yogurts that tout digestive benefits to milk claiming to improve eyesight, consumers can expect to find more dual-purpose "functional foods" on their local grocery store shelves in the coming year, says a market research analyst.

Functional foods  - foods that boast direct health benefits like aiding heart health or bone strength - have been growing globally by about 14 percent a year since 2003, and are expected to grow even stronger in the US and Europe, says Matt Incles, market intelligence officer at Leatherhead Food Research in the UK. That amounts to $9.9 billion in 2003 to $24.2 billion in 2010.

Incles will be presenting his findings on Tuesday in Geneva at Vitafoods Europe, a global nutraceutical and food ingredients trade show that attracts 8,500 attendees from 90 countries around the world.

While dairy products with digestive benefits have been the most dominant player on the market, Incles says that consumers can expect a wider range of health claims on an equally expanding range of products.

Bakery and cereals, for instance, have slowly been encroaching on the dairy-dominated industry to take up a quarter of the market.

"We're going to see a wider application of functional foods, like cereal products aiding digestion," Incles said in an interview with Relaxnews.

In addition to digestive benefits, another emerging health benefit trend is immunity. Dannon's DanActive, for example, claims to "support"  the immune system, while Green Giant has a range of frozen vegetables called Immunity Boost, which also claim to support a healthy immune system.

While functional foods have traditionally been breakfast-oriented, they're also beginning to show up in other categories like snack foods.

Nestlé's Skinny Cow, for example, sells low-fat ice creams with added fiber.

A US scientist also claims to have created an ice cream with added fiber, probiotics and antioxidants - the first frozen dessert to have all three.

US-based baby formula manufacturer Mead Johnson says its milk product Enfamil can improve an infant's eyesight. The claim was approved by the European Parliament last month.

Pregnant women have become another target for functional food manufacturers. One ingredient in particular - docosahexanoic acid or DHA - has been generating buzz in pediatric nutrition for helping fetal development and is being experimented in snack bars and other foods for expectant women.

Consumers have also been driving the market for natural ingredients that double in function: flavor and health. Ingredients like green tea, green coffee, and guarana - a South American shrub naturally rich in caffeine -  are increasingly being used in a swath of products.

But while functional foods have been experiencing growth around the world, Incles points out that dual-powered items often carry a premium and could also repel customers with sticker shock - customers who are already dubious about health claims.

"Consumers have to feel confident about why they're paying more for a product."

More than 80 percent of proposals for health claims are rejected by the European Food Safety Authority.

Vitafoods runs May 10 to May 12 in Geneva.

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