The new wave of functional foods need to be based on ingredients already well-established in consumers' minds as inherently healthy, according to the Hartman Group.
In this week's issue of the group's HartBeat, the market researcher stated that not understanding where a food's health benefits come from tends to turn consumers away.
"If the ingredients make sense to the consumers, the product is more readily accepted than one that raises questions that suggest a product is a chemical, pharmaceutical or enhanced in any other way that seems unnatural," said the group.
"In order to succeed in today's consumer driven marketplace, new functional foods and beverages need to be based on culture and not the test laboratory."
How consumers understand 'functional'
Indeed, Hartman's research, based on observations of consumers in their homes, finds that most Americans do not understand the term 'functional foods' in the same way as the industry that created it.
When asked what 'functional food' means, consumer responses included:
- "Maybe foods that are more natural in their core."
- "I don't know."
- "It helps your body work or… um… break down… necessary components in your body. It has a 'function'."
- "Foods that have more vitamins and nutrients and phytonutrients than other foods."
According to Hartman, consumers divide functional foods into two main categories: 'natural' functional foods, and 'created' functional foods.
'Natural' functional foods
The foods they think of as natural or inherently functional are those that have naturally-occurring health benefits at an ingredient level, explained Hartman's ethnographic research analyst Tamara Barnett.
"This perspective of natural food as inherently functional is foundational to understanding why individuals may reject some packaged foods that claim a functional benefit," she said.
'Created' functional foods
Consumers place in this category those foods that are seen to contain "obscure" ingredients, which could suggest to them that the food "is not a real food".
Such foods are viewed more as products of science or medicine than real food, explained Barnett.
What consumers want
"Ultimately, individuals want to be able to connect their food with the ingredients in it, its nutrients and the health benefits claimed. To make this link, consumers often construct 'ingredient narratives', or simple stories about a product's characteristics to determine how it derives its functionality," said Barnett.
Ingredient narratives, she explained, are informed by the consumer's knowledge about the product and its ingredients, their intuitive sense about a product based on cues like packaging, ingredients and their personal experience or history with a particular product.
Functional foods that work
According to Hartman, even though consumers divide functional foods into two 'opposite' groups - natural and created - there remains a great opportunity for manufacturers to create products that mediate the two poles.
The key to success is to provide consumers with products that make sense, it said.
"Packaged foods that will be most successful are those that intersect with consumers' notions of natural, innately functional food as well as provide the benefit of added nutrition," concluded Barnett.