The institute identified the trend towards health claims during the course of research for its Health and Wellness Trends Database 2006. In its survey 57 percent of US consumers indicated that they look for foods with a specific health claim.
About half of consumers said they prefer vitamins, minerals, herbals and dietary supplements that carry a specific health claim.
The FDA is responsible for approving and wording evidence-based health claims on foods that link nutrients to a reduced risk of disease, or structure-function claims.
But in its definition of health claims, the institute is not sticking rigidly to those that fall under the jurisdiction of the FDA, but rather expands the category to include products that are specifically designed for people with a food-health requirement, such as allergy sufferers.
"With over 29m people (adults and children) suffering from food allergies, allergen-free foods will continue to experience solid growth," predicts president Maryellen Molyneaux.
For instance, gluten-free foods, aimed at sufferers of celiac disease, have shown 50 percent compound annual growth over the past five years, to generate retail sales of more than $400m in the US.
However the NMI says that specific nutrients, such as omega-3, lycopene, probiotics, and plant sterols, for which there is evidence linking them to health conditions such as heart disease or digestive health, are popular with food manufacturers.
"While consumers may lack understanding of the specific health benefits of some nutrients, savvy manufacturers and marketers will use this opportunity for continued education to raise the value of their nutrient-rich products in the eyes of the consumers," said Molyneaux.
While FDA approval of a health claim can lead to greatly improved sales across the entire category (as has happened with omega-3 since 2004), over the past year a movement has emerged within the industry to loosen the government agency's grip on what can legally be claimed and what cannot.
Part of the problem has been that some companies experienced long delays in finding out whether or not their health claim petitions had been approved, due to a lack of resources at the department or agency dealing with them.
Moreover, some qualified health claims have been cumbersome and couched in language that make little sense on product labels.
The cost of conducting science and preparing a submission can run to five figures, which has been off-putting to some companies. And it is not only the company footing the bill that benefits in the event the process is successful, but its competitors too.
But a broader take on health claims such as NMI's might help manufacturers to think more creatively about marketing the benefits of their healthy products - within the bounds of the law, of course.