Mainstream Consumers Seek Healthful Ingredients

Consumers experiencing those aches and pains of natural aging understand the food-health connection while media and government initiatives increase focus on the food-health relationship.

By Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., Ingredients Editor

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American consumers, more selective than ever of processed foods, are reviewing food ingredients more conscientiously with health on the mind. Health obviously drives consumer motivation. There has been a big increase in health and nutrition messages reaching consumers ever since the government has allowed more health-related claims on food packaging.

Mega brands, such as General Mills and PepsiCo, have adopted health as the new big marketing message and their buy-in is compelling others to produce healthier foods. Formulators are substituting or introducing healthier alternatives to existing product lines and ingredient vendors are supporting them with evidence-based knowledge. Such knowledge is helping create new foods — more effective foods for overall health, healthy digestion, cardiovascular health, antioxidant and immune support, healthy glucose levels, weight control and energy.

Whole grains, antioxidants & soy

That whole grains figure large in this health movement is no surprise, given the “whole grain agenda” of the big cereal-based brands. Special interest organizations, trying to recover from the Atkins onslaught last year, are taking advantage of the growing health awareness from the new dietary guidelines (see www.mypyramid.gov). Surveys show consumers equate whole grains with fiber, and the notion that daily dietary fiber is important is now set among adults, while companies have helped by making daily consumption of whole grains more convenient.

High intensity sweeteners and high-performance processing aids, such as emulsifiers and hydrocolloids, are enabling manufacturers to produce rich tasting and appealing whole-grain foods unlike the dry, bland fiber-rich processed foods of the past.

Antioxidants owe their popularity to two factors: Consumers have been extensively educated to the healthful effects of individual antioxidants, and advances in processing technologies made it possible for such ingredients as green tea catechols and omega-3 fatty acids from fish to appear innocuously and effectively in foods and beverages already popular with consumers.

Soy, long recognized for health, has benefited from advances in processing and negative-flavor masking technologies. Focused consumer education and strategic marketing (such as placing soy milk in refrigerated dairy cases) — not to mention increased familiarity due to growing populations of traditional soy eaters — created wide varieties of popular soy products, driving soy consumption skyward.

Women helped tremendously. Prompted by unique health benefits of soy isoflavones for females, these decision makers helped soy products become part of the American family’s daily diet.

Surveying the scene

A December 2004 consumer survey by the Grocery Manufacturers of America, (www.gmabrands.com), Washington, reported that whole, unrefined grains topped consumer list of recognized healthful ingredients, and fiber was a top choice with 66 percent of respondents. “Consumers are applying their knowledge about nutrition to choose foods and beverages that meet their health goals,” notes Alison Kretser, senior director of scientific and nutrition policy for the organization.

The Nutrition Business Journal reported foods with healthful ingredients to be growing at a healthy annual rate of 8-10 percent for six years now. Productscan Online, Naples, N.Y. (www.productscan.com) noted that new fiber-enriched product introductions in North America, stagnant at approximately 2.5 percent since 2000, nearly doubled to 4.2 percent in 2004.

Ironically, just when consumers are beginning to connect food with nutrition and health, there is also increasing prevalence of obesity and other chronic diseases. The future of food is clearly in health and nutrition and consumer education.

According to NPD Food World, Port Washington, N.Y., (www.npd.com) the percentage of restaurant orders that included French fries was highest in 1997 (27.2 per cent) and was as low as 23 percent in 2004. The American per-capita consumption of carbonated soft drinks is in its sixth consecutive year of decline. The future of food is in health.

Whole grains & dietary fiber

Whole grain foods and high-fiber formulations are generally more expensive to produce because of ingredient costs and additional processing times. High-speed manufacturing of whole-grain formulations is tricky because fibers, whole grains, nuts and seeds place great demands on the gluten network of the bakery product. These ingredients produce sticky or bucky (tough) doughs because they hold less water and consequently slow down production lines. Production is also slowed by granular inclusions which interfere with the crevices of manufacturing lines designed for smooth dough products. Additionally, high-fiber formulations yield lower volume and troublesome textural quality.

Small companies, such as artisanal bakery Companion Baking, St. Louis, (www.companionbaking.com) are leading the way with innovative incorporation of healthful ingredients and so are rapidly capturing consumer loyalty. “Bread sales to grocery stores have clearly shifted towards whole grains and artisanal breads,” says Companion owner Josh Allen. The return to traditional, hand-made whole grain products has served Companion well. By limiting automation, such smaller bakeries can produce high-quality breads in retail brand and store bakery formats. Consumers willingly purchase them despite an extra dollar or two premium.

Multi-national bakeries are not far behind. George Weston Bakeries, Totowa, N.J. (www.gwbakeries.com) collaborated with Kellogg to launch high-fiber breads – All Bran Breakfast Loaf with 9 g fiber per serving and Two Scoops Raisin Bran Whole Wheat Breakfast Bread with 7 g of fiber.

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