Sales stagnate as nation sickens of health fad foods

The popularity of 'functional' products such as pro-biotic yoghurt drinks has slipped as consumers turn to foods that are naturally healthy
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Shoppers are losing faith in faddy, miracle foods that promise much but deliver little, apart from lighter wallets. Consumers are choosing instead to eat more naturally healthy foods, new research indicates.

After years spent swallowing pledges from giant food manufacturers such as Unilever and Danone, consumers are mounting a pro-biotic backlash. The amount of money spent on "functional" yoghurt drinks promising anything from greater brains and beauty to lower your cholesterol and stomach gas fell last year.

The market for "functional foods" – products fortified with anything from omega-3 fish oils to plant oestrogens – barely grew in the 12 months to December 2007, in stark contrast to previous years, a Mintel consumer survey reveals. The findings will come as a blow for the food industry and follow last week's claims that some vitamin supplements could shorten your life.

Instead of buying products with ingredients that they barely recognise, consumers are embracing "real foods", analysts say. The inaugural Real Food Festival in Earls Court this week, billed as the country's biggest farmers' market, will bring together around 500 small producers from across the UK.

The research shows that sales of functional foods edged just 3 per cent higher in 2007 to £613m, held back by a 9 per cent fall in the amount spent on functional yoghurt drinks, which comprise the bulk of the market. Several brands, such as Danone's Danecol, were withdrawn from the UK market last year as food companies sought to simplify consumer choice in the hope of increasing sales.

David Bird, a consumer analyst at Mintel, said: "Confused consumers couldn't tell which products were doing what after a raft of new launches that had different health claims and price points. Focus moved instead to naturally healthier products such as superfoods like blueberries and pomegranates."

Many food companies are responding by highlighting the natural health benefits of their products rather than the injected nutrients. Müller, the UK's best selling yoghurt, removed pro-biotics from its Müllerlight range for its relaunch earlier this year.

Mintel's findings chime with recent claims made by Professor Lesley Regan, of Imperial College, in a BBC Horizon investigation that eating pro-biotic yoghurts, which claim to guarantee better digestion, have no health benefits. She advised shoppers to leave "functional" yoghurts out of their trolleys. And a recent Which? report warned consumers that the evidence in favour of pro-biotics was "patchy".

Some nutritionists worry that consumers can regard functional foods as a quick fix for a poor diet. Joanne Lunn, a senior nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, said: "If people decide to eat functional foods, it should be in addition to a healthy, varied, balanced diet. No food can provide our bodies with all the nutrients it requires to keep healthy, so it is very important that these foods are not used as an excuse not to eat well."

But others take a more pragmatic approach. Jack Winkler, professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University, said fortifying popular foods such as white bread with nutrients that are not consumed widely, such as omega-3, was better than trying – and failing – to change the rotten eating habits of an entire nation. "Three-quarters of people in this country don't eat any fish at all, so let's get the number eating omega-3 oils up by all means," he said.

Although food manufacturers are busy injecting omega-3 into a wide range of products, from milk and eggs to bread and cheese, Mr Bird warned that many new launches could struggle. "People do not buy bread or cheese to be healthy. I can't see a massive future for functional foods in these sectors."

Compounding manufacturers' difficulties, new European legislation will force companies that make false or unsubstantiated claims about their products to withdraw them.

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