by Marcia English
In terms of the nutritional benefits they provide, not all foods are considered equal. Foods or food components that have been demonstrated to provide a health benefit beyond meeting basic nutrition may be described as functional foods.
The term was first promoted in Japan in the 1980s, and today Japan remains one of the most advanced functional food markets in the world. Although there is no consensus on the definition of functional food, they can be broadly grouped into three categories: (a) natural foods containing physiologically active components; (b) foods that have been enriched or modified with physiologically active or biologically active components; and (c) synthesized food ingredients that demonstrate a physiological benefit (e.g., indigestible carbohydrates).
A 2021 Mintel report suggests that demand and markets for functional foods continue to rise. Indeed, the current market in Canada is worth approximately CDN$13.93 billion and is projected to reach CDN$19.8 billion in 2025. However, the development of functional food can be a risky process since some consumers have conflicting perspectives on whether functional foods are actually linked to health benefits or if they are primarily used as a marketing strategy.
Food labels that promote nutrition and health claims have also been criticized for containing misleading information. These observations suggest there is more to be done to better inform consumers of the potential health benefits linked with consuming functional foods.
Health claims for functional foods: How are they established?
Health claims are statements that imply a link between consuming functional foods and a potential health benefit. However, the lack of a universal definition for functional foods affects the level of the evidence needed to establish health claims in different countries. Thus, health claims alone are not sufficient evidence; understanding the level or the weight of the scientific evidence that forms the basis to support that claim is what’s important.
The establishment of health claims is a process in which a health concept related to a functional food becomes a health claim through many regulated steps. The first step involves a systematic literature review that gathers information about previous research of the potential functional food of interest. Then, product analysis evaluates the product’s quality and stability. Preliminary studies in animal models may also be useful as indicators of safety and the efficacy of the food or food components of interest.
Although animal studies are not reflective of realistic doses to be used in humans, they can be important to help gain approval for human studies. Well-designed, controlled human intervention trials are the most effective approach to demonstrate the efficacy of functional foods. In these studies, participants are exposed to the potential functional foods of interest in a safe and ethical way, and the functional effect of the food is evaluated. Biological markers, components in our body that can be measured and evaluated, are used to provide physiological information, and are important to gather scientific proof about the effectiveness of the proposed functional food. Supporting evidence from laboratory experiments is also used to provide insights about mechanisms of action that explain the association between the consumption of the potential function food and the resulting health effect.
Finally, after acquiring government approval, the health concept is then considered a health claim. All the evidence that these various procedures provide are valuable in establishing health claims, which in turn help to validate functional foods. Indeed, the scientific rigor involved in this process will vary in different countries based on their regulatory frameworks. However, this is fundamentally what separates how well a functional food “satisfactorily demonstrates” a functional effect. Ultimately, in each country, this will impact the number of functional food products that are available in the marketplace.
In Canada, health claims can be grouped into two main categories: function health claims and reduced risk claims. Function claims refer to the beneficial effects that the consumption of functional foods or food components have on normal functions or biological activities of the body. On the other hand, reduced risk claims link a food or constituent of that food to reducing the risk of developing a diet-related disease or condition. Ideally, labeling for these health claims should adhere to the current regulatory standards and should not over-state scientific evidence. However, this ideal situation is not always what is observed in the marketplace, which can make it challenging for consumers who want to purchase these foods. But as we well know, the factors that influence how consumers understand health claims can be complex.
Consumer response to functional food health claims
Recent reports from the scientific literature confirm that consumers are genuinely interested in health-related claims, but interest seems to vary depending on the type of functional food products. The presence of too much information and difficulty interpreting different health claims have been noted as factors that can negatively influence whether consumers purchase functional foods.
The successful communication of health claims is a concern that has also been raised among different stakeholders. Importantly, health claims find their true value when they are effectively used by manufacturers to communicate information about the positive health benefits of functional foods to consumers. However, a further challenge for food manufacturers is to realize that consumers have different needs, and that information in health claims will only be of interest to different segments or groups of consumers.
More importantly, these intended consumers can play a role in stimulating positive responses about functional foods to consumers in other segments. Thus, the unanswered question about what influences consumer understanding of health claims for functional foods can only be addressed when we evaluate the individual consumer characteristics, as well as the functional foods themselves and how the health claims are communicated.
Individual factors that can impact how consumers respond to functional food health claims include sociodemographic factors, knowledge of nutrition information, familiarity with or awareness of functional food ingredients, country of residence (i.e., developing nations vs. developed), and consumer overall experience with food (pleasurable and happy versus unpleasant).
Although these factors are not controlled by food manufacturers, they play important roles in determining consumers’ responses to claims about functional foods and their willingness to purchase these foods. Conversely, factors related to products such as cost and the way in which health claims are communicated on these products are within the grasp of food manufacturers to change. Thus, strategies to improve consumer understanding of health claims can begin here.
For example, the use of short health claims on the front label of functional foods can be more effective to some consumer segments in generating a positive image in the consumers’ minds compared to longer claims. Other consumer segments might also prefer to have more information on active ingredients and their health benefits. The takeaway here is that consumers are not a homogenous group. Research has also shown that when the strength of scientific evidence is conveyed using visual aids, consumer understanding of health claims also increases.
Consumer confidence in functional foods depends on the processes underlying the evaluation of claims. Thus, in the context of a growing interest to respond to the urgent concerns about communicating health claims, food manufacturers and policy makers have a role to play in being transparent and ensuring that health claims on functional foods are truthful and not misleading. Consumers are not a homogenous group, and so efforts to encourage more functional foods in their diets should be targeted at different consumer segment groups.
It may also be important for policies governing producers’ use of health claims to not only evaluate whether claims are deceptive or misleading, but also evaluate how well they encourage producers to disseminate new information about functional foods to consumers. On the path to optimized nutrition, it is also important to help consumers personally link the attributes of functional foods to the consequences of consuming them.