Health and Wellness Take Center Stage at 2007 IFT Show

Wellness is no longer about reducing risk factors, but about bringing about a better quality of life, we heard at the IFT Show.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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General sessions at July's IFT Annual Meeting and Food Expo could have been called super sessions because they rocked the house. One such rocker was a panel of senior executives from Kraft, Nestle, General Mills and Campbell Soup who discussed the industry's approach to health and wellness in foods.

In addition to generalities, each exec assessed their individual companies' progress in creating and marketing more healthful products, plus efforts at sustainability, maintaining taste in nutritious foods and dealing with varying regulations from country to country.

Major factors driving wellness foods are an aging population, worldwide obesity, and the increase in working women in the job market, according to Chor San Heng Khoo, vice president of global nutrition and health at Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J.

"Wellness is no longer about reducing risk factors but about bringing about a better quality of life," she said. "We are staying older longer and consumers want to 'function better' as they age."

Mark Belton, executive vice president of worldwide health, brand and new business development at Minneapolis-based General Mills, says the company is seeking new ways to use more fiber, whole grains, healthier fats and oils, as well as to raise the nutrient content and lower calories in new products. But he said food companies currently face a regulatory climate that's suspicious of food marketing to kids. "Reaching children's hearts and minds is key to promoting healthy behaviors," he said.

To reach kids, Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill., is working with Nickelodeon cable television to make kid-friendly ads, according to Lance Friedmann, senior vice president of global health and wellness and sustainability. On the new product front, Kraft's Sensible Solution platform is growing two to three times faster than the company's other products and is being embraced by consumers looking for portion control. "Forty percent of 100-calorie packs are given to kids by moms," he points out. On the down side, "Consumers like better-for-you-symbols on packaging, but they are confusing."

Nestle SA, Vevey, Switzerland, spends $1.7 billion a year on R&D, and its mergers and acquisitions strategy is connected and linked with its health and wellness R&D, according to Matthew Roberts, head of acquisitions and business development. "The consumer wants a sense of community and to be empowered for healthy behaviors," he says, but communicating with the public at-large in innovative ways presents a hurdle.

"Wellness is growing double-digit," says Khoo. "In the next 10 years, we predict revolutionary changes in how foods will be developed."

Health and wellness were just as apparent at another session. "I think Hispanics [42.7 million strong] are one of the most interesting demographics for health and wellness going forward," said Barbara Katz, president of HealthFocus International and a Food Processing contributing editor. "So many of them are actively involved in pursuing wellness through diet and so many are open to functional nutrition and open to paying a premium for it."

Many trends and creative new food and beverage concepts start abroad. LuAnn Williams, senior analyst at CNS Media/Innova Market Insights, Duiven, The Netherlands, listed as international trends with staying power Japanese inspiration, nostalgia, sustainability of the environment and health and pleasure. "Satisfying satiety, combating obesity, super ingredients in foods and exotic flavors are opportunities for the industry," she said.

With restaurant trends setting tomorrow's food industry direction, Joe Pawlak, vice president of Chicago-based Technomic Inc., focused on macro trends underlying away-from-home food choices. "Convenience, balance, customization, social consciousness and ethnic foods are the chief trends," he said. "Cuisines on the radar are Mediterranean, Latin American, Pan-Asian, Brazilian/Argentinean and Thai." When targeting foodservice, "better-for-you" monikers work better than "healthy," he added.

Should the U.S. create a single food agency? "USDA inspects carcasses and FDA does everything else. Putting them together would serve no useful purpose at all," according to Peter Barton Hutt, former chief counsel of the FDA, partner in Washington law firm Covington and Burling and adjunct food and drug law professor at Harvard Law School.

And here's an eye-opening statistic. "In 1990, the FDA budget was $870 million. With 60 percent inflation since then, FDA's 2005 budget of $1.45 billion has basically stood still. It's a massive problem; the agency is crippled" while being charged with increased responsibility for food safety, said the father of the U.S. nutrition labeling system and other key food regulations. "It's no wonder that trust in FDA fell from 80 percent to a current 30-40 percent."

Hutt challenged attendees in no uncertain terms. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself; it's time for IFT to stand up and demand FDA be given [an additional] $400 million - what they need to function -- by Congress. You in the food industry must do your part to save FDA, which doesn't have a constituency. Harass members of Congress, write letters and do it now!"

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