Is functionality the future of food?

01 April 2022, 08:46 AM
  • With consumers on the lookout for foods that do more than just satisfy our hunger and cravings, it’s time to find out if functional foods are the way forward
Is functionality the future of food?

The Covid-19 pandemic increased interest in food and drink products that deliver ‘smart’ benefits such as immunity, stress management and complete nutrition

These products are described as ‘functional’ or ‘smart’ and according to Mintel, they will become a major trend within eight years. In fact, Mintel predicts that technology will enable consumers to construct hyper-individualised approaches to physical and mental health, and modify their diets and lifestyles to improve their brain health, states of mind, and moods.

Paul Gurnell, general manager of Purearth explained: “The huge steps forward in personal diagnostic capabilities (DNA, Epigenetics etc) will enable us all to understand more about our own health needs, highlighting deficiencies and areas of potential weakness.

“This information will not only enable us to eat and drink ‘smarter’ to counter these challenges, but will also provide invaluable date to manufacturers to utilise for innovation purposes.

“The personalisation of nutrition is already a rapidly growing industry and I would expect to see it continue on this trajectory, driven by a combination of the increased diagnostic capability, lower levels of cooking competency in millennials & Gen Z’s, huge increases in “dark kitchen” and “customisable” food production facilities and widening access to ultra-fast delivery networks for food and drink.”

While this technology is still a way off from being commercially available, this hasn’t stopped consumers from seeking functionality in their weekly shop.

What functional products are consumers looking for?
Nicole Razák, buyer at vegan supermarket GreenBay explained: “Based on our data, the most popular products are typically the ones that are easy to have on the go, and we believe this points out a slight gap in the market. Although improving, it is still there - especially in the plant-based world. 

“If you forget to bring lunch to work and need to grab something quickly without having access to a kitchen, yet want to keep it healthy and tick all the points nutrition-wise, the options are still limited. When customers skim through the aisles of a supermarket, it’s quite shocking to see how many of those marketed as healthy products are quite far from it. 

“We can see our customers reaching for a simpler version with no nasties - whether it’s a raw bar packed with vitamins, an organic cashew yoghurt, a functional drink, or a pre-made bean/legume/vegetable-based lunch.”

“Some of our customers’ favourite smart foods include Brite Focus: An energy drink with superfoods like Matcha, Guarana and Guayusa, Feed: a ready to eat wholefood product with no artificial ingredients and packed with vitamins and minerals, and Biomel: dairy alternative drink containing billions of active cultures, Vitamin D6 & B3, supporting gut health and immune system.”

How to capitalise on the growing trend
Georgie Abbott, founder of CBD Olive Oil brand Drops of Heal advises: “Listen closely to your customers. More and more people are seeking not just superfoods, smart foods, and organic for their own health benefit, but also moral values. Small independent local brands with a minimal ecological footprint are on the rise, and customers are becoming more and more aware of the importance of this.”

Selling functional ingredients such as Drops of Heal means indie retailers “provide the value of CBD to their customers whilst enhancing the taste of their food”, according to Georgie. 

“We have found that independent retailers, delis and restaurants have been keen to work with us due to the new opportunities we can offer to the market by making it so simple for them to capitalize on the CBD market.”

Noel Bollmann, co-founder and CEO of yfood added: “For retailers, there is the chance of real additional sales from people who actively come into the stores to buy an alternative to junk food. Smart food can appeal to a young target group that places great value on healthy eating. It is now a matter of staying on track and enabling people to enjoy the shopping experience spontaneously. Retailers can currently be pioneers here if they open up to the new category and bring innovation to the shelves.”

Finally, Phil explained that “the key starting point is providing choices across the main product categories and focusing on breadth of range rather than depth. This may at times involve taking risks on new items or shifting reliance’s from bigger brands to more innovative ones, but will bear fruit as shoppers reappraise and re-engage.”

The bottom line
Smart food technology may be a few years away, but functionality is certainly growing in popularity, and it shouldn’t be ignored as a passing trend.

Nicole explained: “With veganism and plant-based living on the rise every year, consumers are becoming more and more demanding - and we believe this is just the beginning. As a result, we believe in the next few years brands will have to adapt to meet the consumer’s needs, shifting away from some of the current options. We hope the supply and demand will make these products more accessible for the everyday consumer, becoming the norm rather than a luxury.”

Georgie argued that while functionality is likely the future of food, “there needs to be a balance between functionality, personality and variety - that’s what makes a good product in any industry for the future. Functionality is at the forefront of what we do but we also provide variety in the flavours and experiences we can offer to our customers. As for the CBD industry, this could mean that we see fewer ‘gimmicky’ products and, rather than buying into the trend, consumers will focus on functional products that will benefit their day-to-day life.”

The bottom line is that retailers shouldn’t feel too overwhelmed by the idea of smart foods. After all, there is a wide range of functional food products that offer all the luxuries of fine food such as quality, indulgence and provenance.

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