Baked With Science

More foods that purport to fight disease or even stress are showing up on grocers’ shelves.

When Neil Kudrinko learned that his wife, Martha, was allergic to cow’s-milk protein, almost four years ago, he donned his grocer’s apron and started sourcing products for his store that she could eat. “In a way, as a grocer, I’m glad I had the experience. It made me more aware of other customers’ dietary restrictions,” says Kudrinko, owner of Kudrinko’s grocery store in Westport, Ont.

Today, Kudrinko is not the only grocer paying close attention to his customers’ demands for non-allergenic foods and foods that fight or prevent disease. Just look down the aisles of almost any supermarket and you’ll see a cornucopia of items that promise to perform a variety of functions such as lower cholesterol, improve digestion, fend off osteoporosis, and the list goes on.

These products are often broadly referred to as “functional foods.” Some of them, like broccoli or blueberries, are naturally good, with properties that wrestle or resist disease. But others need a little help with the addition of good-for-you ingredients such as omega-3 fatty acids–one of the hottest new additives – which can be found in many foods, including eggs, bread, yogurt and milk. Other additives that have recently become the darling of food processors are vitamin D and fibre. In the last couple of years a whole host of functional foods have hit store shelves. Just think of prebiotics and, for that matter, probiotics.

Why are we seeing more functional foods on shelves? Several reasons. One is education. Consumers know a lot more about what’s in foods now than they used to. And they’re drawn to ingredients that purport to offer healing powers, or the ability to thwart flu and colds, or fine-tune brain cells. On the flip side, food manufacturers are looking for any edge that’ll get their products listed by retailers and noticed by consumers. Anyone can bake bread, but bread with a few extra molecules of goodness? Now we’re talking.

Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals is actively involved in developing functional foods. Researchers, says, are “starting to try some new and wacky and wonderful things, including more esoteric, more far-reaching materials and we’ll probably find some of those work quite well.

Functional foods have a strong appeal to many demographic groups. Moms, for instance. They’re worried about their family’s health, in particular overweight kids, who are susceptible to Type 2 diabetes. But the largest target for functional foods, by far, is aging baby boomers. They’ll do anything to ward off, well, aging. And buying a food that lowers cholesterol sure beats plunking down big bucks for, say, statin medication, which cannot only cause mild side effects such as diarrhea, but more serious problems such as liver or kidney failure.

“It’s the whole idea of baby boomers going into their future years and trying to be as healthy as possible, so they’re demanding more from their food,” says Amy Snider-Whitson, owner and president of the Test Kitchen, a consulting firm based in Maple, Ont. “Many of these products are targeted to conditions they’re concerned about: heart disease, high blood pressure, keeping cholesterol low and avoiding strokes.”
Boomers, too, have the ability to pay for functional foods, which can cost 30% to 50% more than the unfortified variety. For example, a loaf of Dempster’s Healthy Way ProCardio whole wheat bread costs up to $3.59, versus $2.99 for Dempster’s regular whole wheat bread. Not that the price is hurting sales. “It’s a line that’s done really well,” says Riona Kum, brand manager for Dempster’s Healthy Way line, which also includes nutritional bars in two flavours. “Certainly not a lot of products make it to the $10-million sales mark in a year and Healthy Way is over and above that number.”
Not everyone is convinced that fortified functional foods have the “fortitude” to go mainstream. Marion Chan, president of TrendSpotter, a Toronto-based strategic marketing consulting firm, finds a lot of consumers are skeptical. “If you say something is good for you, they think it’s too good to be true. But if you say that broccoli that grew out of the ground has great stuff in it, they’ll believe you.”

Although unaltered functional foods have been around for centuries, the fortified variety has only been available for about 15 years, starting with Becel margarine, formulated to control cholesterol. One of the newest functional food categories is the calming drink–the antidote, if you will, to the Red Bulls of the world. One calming drink is the aptly named Slow Cow, made by Boisson Slow Cow Inc. of Quebec City. Introduced late last year, it’s designed to improve concentration, memory and learning capacity without causing sleepiness. The key ingredient is L-Theanine, an amino acid found in tea plants that induces a relaxing, yet focused, state of mind. No relaxing foods have hit the market yet, but considering that stress is a major health issue, perhaps it’s only a matter of time.

Dr. Peter Jones, director of the University of Manitoba’s Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, thinks the sky’s the limit for functional foods now. He should know: Richardson is actively involved in developing functional foods. Researchers, he says, are “starting to try some new and wacky and wonderful things, including more esoteric, more far-reaching materials and we’ll probably find some of those work quite well.”

For example, he says that by combining ingredients in new ways, scientists may be able to develop techniques that produce foods that are more functionally effective.

Making compounds more soluble is another area of study. Richardson is collaborating with a Chilean company to make plant sterols more easily dissolvable. The benefit, says Jones, is a product that will be more powerful. “I’m really amazed at how we’re going and it’s only going to get better,” he says.

4 Merchandising Tips

1. Don’t bury your head in the sand. A growing number of shoppers want to be able to buy functional foods. So offer a broad array, as well as the conventional grocery store selection. Otherwise you risk losing customers to a competitor that stocks both.

2. Customers have a fuzzy idea that functional foods are beneficial, yet the vast majority don’t know why. Education is key, but first make sure your staff knows the difference between, say, prebiotic and probiotic.

3. Encourage manufacturers to do in-store demos with someone on hand to answer customers’ questions. Also, look for functional foods that have the Heart & Stroke Foundation’s Health Check endorsement. Consumers already know these are foods that are better for them.

4. Although it may be difficult to do in the grocery or dairy departments because fortified functional foods span a variety of sub-categories, take a look at your produce department. You may be able to set up a display of so-called “superfruits” that are known to have extra-healthy benefits.

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