Health-conscious consumers put higher demands on food ingredients

Special needs foods are moving into the mainstream. “These are really hot areas,” said Melissa Abbott, senior trendspotter and analyst for The Hartman Group. “They used to be reserved for core consumers, but we’re seeing interest move into the mainstream. People just want to feel better, and they are looking to their foods to help them do that.”

Boosting immunity seems to be a big concern with consumers now, and they believe that eating the right foods can help them do that. Abbott said consumers also believe that adjusting their diets can alleviate many conditions—from digestive health to asthma and allergies.

Food allergies also are becoming more prevalent among Americans, though scientists aren’t sure why. The Food Products Association reports that 6 million to 7 million Americans have a food allergy.

Although diagnosing of celiac disease is rising, experts say the appeal of gluten-free and wheat-free foods aren’t limited to those consumers who are sure they have celiac disease.

“Only 1 percent of consumers truly have celiac disease, we’re seeing a huge surge in these products as consumers try to avoid the latest ‘food villain,’” said Kim Lopez-Walters, consumer strategist for food and beverages at Iconoculture. “They see adapting their diet as a low-risk opportunity.”

“People looking for gluten- or wheat-free products usually have a health condition that irritates them, whether its asthma and allergies or a digestive issue, and they are experimenting with how cutting things out of their diet can help them manage their condition,” Abbott said.

Experts predict that more Americans also will be looking for ways to lower their sodium intake—especially as they reach middle age. Salt makes the body retain fluid; too much fluid interferes with the heart’s ability to pump blood sufficiently.

“Low-sodium foods are a really up-and-coming area,” said Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, a registered dietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “Cardiovascular disease and other associated conditions benefit from a low-sodium diet, and there’s a real concern that many older patients with these conditions often rely on frozen meals and canned foods—many of which contain a lot of sodium.”

Manufacturers already are working to lower the sodium content in their products. Datamonitor Productscan Online reported that 4.1 percent of foods now are making low-sodium claims, up from 2.5 percent that made the claims in 2002.

Campbell Soup, Del Monte and Kraft have launched low-sodium initiatives. Campbell has made sodium reduction a top strategic priority for research and development not only in soups, but across its entire portfolio.

Developing low-sodium products for consumers who are used to salty fare can be a challenge. “Manufacturers can lower sodium, but consumers need to adjust their tastes to accept the change in taste,” Gazzaniga-Moloo said.

Low-glycemic labeling will become more common on grocery shelves, as well. The jury is still out on how useful a tool the GI index is at gauging a food’s potential to elevate blood sugar, but there’s no debate as to the growing incidence of diabetes.

Packaged Facts research found that “the current obesity epidemic, coupled with the increase in the prevalence of diabetes and other diet-related ailments, such as heart disease, are key driving forces in the labeling of glycemic and glucose on product labels.”

“I think we’ll continue to see more foods presenting themselves as low-glycemic options,” Gazzaniga-Moloo said. A recent report from Packaged Facts predicted that promoting foods based on glycemic index, or a similar measure, will have a long-lasting impact on the way Americans choose the foods and beverages they consume.

Packaged Facts projects sales of low-glycemic foods and beverages will grow to $1.8 billion in 2011, a compound annual growth rate of 45.7 percent during the 2007 to 2011 period.

While nutrition, meal replacement and snack bars now represent 60 percent of the low-glycemic category, Packaged Facts estimated that by 2011, that share will shift, making sweets and other grain-based product categories more significant. New categories, such as dairy, are likely to emerge as consumers show increased interest in their specialty area.

Another key growth area will be probiotics and other products that promote gastrointestinal health. A recent study done for General Mills revealed that nearly half of the women surveyed are extremely concerned with their digestive health; one-quarter reported looking for ways to regulate their digestive issues.

Probiotics, live cultures that provide health benefits, have been shown to promote better digestion when consumed in adequate amounts. “Probiotics are typically found in yogurts and kefirs, but now we’re seeing them being added to cereals and a variety of other products. The science is there to support probiotics in terms of GI health and boosting immunity,” Gazzaniga-Moloo said.

Kraft recently launched LiveActive, a line of new products specifically-designed to help address digestive health. So far the line includes LiveActive Cottage Cheeses from Breakstone’s/Knudsen and LiveActive Natural Cheese Snacks from Kraft. LiveActive cereals from Post and water from Crystal Light will be added this month.

“With over 60 million to 70 million Americans suffering from some sort of digestive health issue, we see an opportunity to help meet an important consumer need,” said Basil Maglaris, a Kraft spokesperson.

Kraft is supporting LiveActive with a consumer-wellness program, called The LiveActive Movement, that’s designed to help consumers maintain their digestive and overall health with a tailored eating plan, as well as fitness and lifestyle tips. The initiative includes an interactive Web site that helps consumers assess their digestive health and determine how foods, exercise and sleeping can have an impact on that key aspect of their health.

General Mills also recently introduced Yoplait Yo-Plus, a yogurt containing a blend of probiotic cultures and natural fiber to help aid better digestion.

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