A Mintel survey from February this year found that nearly a third of the 1500 respondents believed foods with added health benefits were just an excuse for manufacturers to charge more - and as little as 7% trusted health claims made by products.
This may seem alarming but for Julian Mellentin of New Nutrition Business, naturally functional foods have age-old healthy associations in consumers’ minds – meaning this mistrust of health claims has not been detrimental to sales.
In a report which ranked naturally functional foods as the number one trend to look out for in 2015, he said that consumers' love for 'natural' was the key behind the boom in sales of almonds or coconut water - which has seen sales values skyrocket from zero to nearly one billion euros in western markets since 2006.
“… Even better for marketers, when consumers can draw their own conclusions about the benefits of your ingredient or product, then you don’t need to make a strong health claim.
“The message that a food or food ingredient has a natural and intrinsic health benefit is one of the most compelling for many people,” he added.
But the Mintel report urged companies to readdress consumer ignorance surrounding health claims.
While oats may appeal to consumers because they seem ‘wholesome’ and ‘natural’ they also have an-EFSA approved claim for lowering cholesterol due to their beta-glucan content – and consumers should be made aware that this is not simply PR spin.
Meanwhile, cranberry juice is an example of a naturally functional 'superfood' which has traditionally been thought to benefit the urinary tract and still benefits from this association - although such a claim has been rejected by EFSA.
“The findings [of the survey] imply a serious lack of awareness about the high level of regulation in place in Europe and the subsequent work companies have to do before making such claims on a product.
“As such, the food industry stands to benefit from investing in raising awareness of the work done by EFSA and the ASA to scrutinise such claims and the communication related to them.”
Blurring the lines
Last year Ewa Hudson, global head of health and wellness at Euromonitor International predicted that naturally functional products, such as green tea, nuts and probiotic yoghurts, would catch up with functionally fortified foods by 2019.
But some companies have found a way of combining the two - by fortifying one product with the naturally-derived nutrients - whose health effects are well-known - sourced from other unrelated products
Tropicana Energy drink has positioned itself as naturally energising because of the caffeine properties found in the guarana berry, while Benecol yoghurt focused on how its cholesterol-lowering plant stanols are found in corn, rye and other plants.
Meanwhile functional ingredient supplier Beneo, which recently won a 13.5 approved health claim for improved bowel function for its chicory root extract, found that having a natural-sounding name made an ingredient more appealing than other functionally-similar ingredients with ‘chemical’ names in a consumer survey.
“'Chicory root extract’ outperformed other fibre names, such as maltodextrin and polydextrose with respondents, in terms of sounding healthier, safer and recognisable,” it said.