Making the most of every bite: functional foods and ‘food as medicine’ are promising an array of health benefits to consumers

Making the most of every bite: functional foods and ‘food as medicine’ are promising an array of health benefits to consumers

By
Louise Burfitt
February 1, 2021

For a pick-me-up. For comfort. Because it tastes good. For joy. The reasons we eat the food we do are many – but a new trend indicates that for increasing numbers of people, the answer to the question “What’s for dinner?” is being driven by health reasons.  As what we eat increasingly continues to experience a lifestyle rebranding, consumers are turning to food and beverage products that promise not just flavour, enjoyment or nutrition, but also additional functions that boost their health or claim to target a particular issue (like sleep or energy levels). From ice cream designed to calm you down before bed to gut-boosting probiotics added to snacks, these functional foods - which fall under the ‘food as medicine’ trend - can be seen across various food and drink segments and are gaining popularity with consumers concerned about their health in the midst of a global pandemic. 


Functional food as medicine has been named a top food trend for 2021 by numerous outlets and last year, sales of functional food reached $267 billion globally. US sales topped $63 billion in the same year, and China is emerging as a market with the highest growth potential for fortified functional foods, boosted by its growing middle class.

 

What is a functional food? 

Just so we’re clear: a functional food is a good that claims to have a positive effect on health beyond basic sustenance. Functional foods - often described using the term ‘medicinal food’ - provide everything that a normal food provides, but also aim to solve functional needs, whether that’s boosting moods, reducing inflammation or adjusting energy levels.

 

Trend drivers: better health, COVID-19 & the influence of the wellness industry

It’s no secret that a nourishing diet positively influences a person’s general physical condition and moods. But in the past, consumers tended to seek food-based solutions to health problems only in a reactionary sense - changing their diet in response to an illness like diabetes, for example. Today, with greater knowledge among consumers and a growing wellness community, consumers are much more likely to see food as a preventative measure and are therefore seeking out products that can help them to see off future health issues, as well as manage existing concerns. 

COVID-19 is certainly playing its role in driving the trend for ‘food as medicine’. The pandemic has put health at the forefront of people’s minds, particularly the concept of immunity - and by association, immunity-boosting foods. According to Market Research, over 50% of consumers surveyed reported taking supplements to support their immune health in 2020. This trend is expected to manifest further in 2021, with immunity-boosting ingredients added to a greater number of food and beverage products as the coronavirus situation continues to affect consumer choices. 

Younger adults, in particular, are likely to take a holistic view of food as medicine, seeing food and drink products as an essential part of a healthy lifestyle and more likely to take a preventative approach. They are also more likely to have been inspired by wellness and health influencers on social media platforms. Research by Mintel has found under-40s tend to desire ‘quick-fix health products that promise added vitamins, gut health, protein, relaxation’ in an affordable, convenient package. Gen Z, born between 1996 and 2010, are also getting in on the functional food action - the demographic has been described as the ultimate wellness consumer, making this age group a ripe market for functional food brands. 

 

Exploring the trend: gut health, probiotics, sleep snacks and more

Gut and digestive health is a particularly popular market within the functional foods trend. This has been gaining in popularity for years, cementing opportunities for growth for function products that claim to boost the digestive system, contain high amounts of fibre or added probiotics. Products like kefir, kombucha and sauerkraut, which are fermented and naturally contain ‘good’ bacteria, have seen huge growth. In the UK, kefir-based products at supermarket Tesco have seen a 400% increase in sales, reflecting shoppers’ interest in gut health and products that support it. The UK’s best-selling kefir is made by Biotiful Dairy, who are innovating with kefir-based soft cheese and desserts. 

Probiotic supplementation has also become almost mainstream: Mintel research shows that 2,000 products containing probiotics have been launched in the last five years in the US. Products like FlapJacked cookie bars and Good Karma cultured probiotic dips and chocolate milks are just two examples of this trend in action - by adding gut-friendly supplements to snacks that might not traditionally be considered healthy, these products have added a functional twist to their offering. Swedish startup YOGUT ME has even developed a kitchen counter machine that can produce personalised probiotic-crammed yogurt. A counterweight to conventional yogurts, which can be laden with sweeteners and artificial flavoring, the brand hopes to branch out into machine-made functional cheeses and frozen treats in future. 

Postbiotics could be an emerging trend in coming years in the functional food for gut health arena - these fermentation byproducts don’t need to be chilled to remain usable, so expect to see these popping onto your radar as they become more mainstream. 

 Thanks to COVID-19, immune-boosting functional food products are also enjoying a renaissance. Expect to see more and more products fortified with vitamins C and D and alternative remedies thought to aid immunity, such as echinacea, turmeric and ginger. Google Trends data shows that internet searches for the combined terms, ‘food’ and ‘immune system’ jumped by 670 per cent between February and March 2020, as the pandemic took hold.  KOR Shots, Suja Functional Shots and Purearth are just a few brands working in this space, offering drinks and shots using functional ingredients like turmeric and ginger that they claim will boost the immune system. 

Sleep-friendly, or sleep-aiding, snacks are also an emerging application of this trend. A small but growing niche is being carved out for products designed for evening indulgence, but healthier than their traditional alternatives and fortified with ingredients that claim to promote relaxation. This trend is particularly apparent in the US, where there is less regulation around sleep aids than in Europe. Goodnight, backed by Nestlé, make relaxing snack bites with added magnesium to aid a full night’s sleep. CBD is also becoming a popular ingredient to aid relaxation, such as Courtney’s Cookies, which also contain added melatonin. 

 Functional snacks like these are popular across all of these trends. While some consumers may not be able to afford supplements, or feel they are worth the cost, buying fortified functional foods using a preexisting food budget makes functional snacks attractive to consumers. Bigger brands are jumping on the bandwagon too: last year Nestlé launched POGO (power-on-the-go) energy bars, which contain ‘superfood’ ingredients such as blueberries and chia.

 

Case Studies: Good Source Snacks & Nightfood Ice Cream

Good Source Snacks is a better-for-you snack brand that makes functional snacks designed for different times of day and with healthy ingredients. Noting the rise of consumer snacking throughout the day, the founders launched three products in 2019: Morning Jump, Afternoon Boost and Evening Chill. They’ve since added Afternoon Break, containing immunity-boosting cranberries and anti-inflammatory blueberries. All of the snacks are 100% natural, non-GMO and gluten-free, and the brand has carefully selected ingredients for each product to aid consumers at different points throughout their day. Despite being coated in dark chocolate (which does, after all, have health benefits), Good Source says their products belong on the healthy snacking shelves rather than with chocolate bars or confectionery, thanks to their functional benefits. The products are available via their own website and Amazon, but plan to expand into brick-and-mortar retail this year. 

Peckish before bedtime? Nightfood Ice Cream sells ‘sleep-friendly’ ice cream fortified with magnesium, calcium and zinc for a better night’s sleep. The ice cream, which comes in nine flavours and boasts its sleep-boosting credentials all over its packaging, doesn’t contain any sleep aids: instead, it’s low in ingredients like sugar and dairy that might cause wakefulness or indigestion. The Cherry Eclipse flavour is made with a type of cherry naturally high in melatonin. Developed by The Sleep Doctor™, the ice cream launched in the US in 2019 and is now available in hundreds of stores nationwide. By choosing ice cream as their product, the founders honed in on a snack that people like to eat close to bedtime, and provided a sleep-conscious solution. Nightfood is even the official ice cream of the American Pregnancy Association (with ice cream one of the most commonly reported pregnancy cravings).

 

The drawbacks of food as medicine 

While the idea of food as ‘medicine’ is very enticing, especially if a product promises to fix that niggling issue or protect you from illness, there is a danger of over-egging the health benefits of a functional food or drink product. Despite the claims of immune-boosting products, for example, no single food product has definitely been found to shield a person French foods multinational Dannon is a warning of what can happen when health benefits are overpromised: their claim that Activia yogurt would regulate bowel health landed them in legal trouble, and the brand had to pay $45 million in damages. So it pays to tread carefully when it comes to making claims and be aware of legal regulations in place in the market where you plan to sell. That’s, perhaps, where products such as kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and the like have it easier – these products naturally contain good-for-you bacteria, whereas brands fortifying their products with healthful supplements have a little bit of a bumpier ride.

The 30-second pitch: Functional foods as medicine  

🧬 What

  • Functional foods and drinks with medicinal benefits are products that claim to have additional health benefits beyond basic nutrition.

🤷‍♂️ Why

  • The coronavirus pandemic has put health at the top of the agenda, and consumers (millennials and Gen X, in particular) are turning to functional food products to boost their health, sleep and moods. 

💊 How

  • CBD-infused food products
  • Foods and added supplements to boost gut and digestive health (e.g. probiotics) 
  • Functional snacks 
  • Immunity-boosting food and drink products 
  • Sleep-friendly foods 
  • Superfoods 

👀 Who

👍 The good

  • Functional foods that contain gut-boosting pre- and probiotics have proven benefits for digestive health, something that’s increasingly important for consumers. 
  • Brands are responding to consumer demand for functional, healthy products, which means greater choice and variety for health-conscious shoppers.
  • Food and drink products that cater to different times of day, omitting caffeine at night for example, or adding energy-boosting ingredients to morning snacks, are proving popular with consumers, but the niche is still small, so there’s plenty of room for emerging brands to make their mark.

👎 The bad 

  • Making unsubstantiated health claims can land brands in legal trouble, so it pays to tread carefully and check your legal standing when touting the health benefits of a product. 
  • Despite the hype, superfoods have not been found to be any better for the body than more conventional fruits and vegetables. 

💡 The bottom line 

  • Functional food as medicine has been named a top food trend for 2021 by numerous outlets and there’s plenty of scope for brands, both established and just starting up, to carve out a niche, but be aware of your legal standing and national regulations when it comes to labelling your ‘healthy’ products.
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For a pick-me-up. For comfort. Because it tastes good. For joy. The reasons we eat the food we do are many – but a new trend indicates that for increasing numbers of people, the answer to the question “What’s for dinner?” is being driven by health reasons.  As what we eat increasingly continues to experience a lifestyle rebranding, consumers are turning to food and beverage products that promise not just flavour, enjoyment or nutrition, but also additional functions that boost their health or claim to target a particular issue (like sleep or energy levels). From ice cream designed to calm you down before bed to gut-boosting probiotics added to snacks, these functional foods - which fall under the ‘food as medicine’ trend - can be seen across various food and drink segments and are gaining popularity with consumers concerned about their health in the midst of a global pandemic. 


Functional food as medicine has been named a top food trend for 2021 by numerous outlets and last year, sales of functional food reached $267 billion globally. US sales topped $63 billion in the same year, and China is emerging as a market with the highest growth potential for fortified functional foods, boosted by its growing middle class.

 

What is a functional food? 

Just so we’re clear: a functional food is a good that claims to have a positive effect on health beyond basic sustenance. Functional foods - often described using the term ‘medicinal food’ - provide everything that a normal food provides, but also aim to solve functional needs, whether that’s boosting moods, reducing inflammation or adjusting energy levels.

 

Trend drivers: better health, COVID-19 & the influence of the wellness industry

It’s no secret that a nourishing diet positively influences a person’s general physical condition and moods. But in the past, consumers tended to seek food-based solutions to health problems only in a reactionary sense - changing their diet in response to an illness like diabetes, for example. Today, with greater knowledge among consumers and a growing wellness community, consumers are much more likely to see food as a preventative measure and are therefore seeking out products that can help them to see off future health issues, as well as manage existing concerns. 

COVID-19 is certainly playing its role in driving the trend for ‘food as medicine’. The pandemic has put health at the forefront of people’s minds, particularly the concept of immunity - and by association, immunity-boosting foods. According to Market Research, over 50% of consumers surveyed reported taking supplements to support their immune health in 2020. This trend is expected to manifest further in 2021, with immunity-boosting ingredients added to a greater number of food and beverage products as the coronavirus situation continues to affect consumer choices. 

Younger adults, in particular, are likely to take a holistic view of food as medicine, seeing food and drink products as an essential part of a healthy lifestyle and more likely to take a preventative approach. They are also more likely to have been inspired by wellness and health influencers on social media platforms. Research by Mintel has found under-40s tend to desire ‘quick-fix health products that promise added vitamins, gut health, protein, relaxation’ in an affordable, convenient package. Gen Z, born between 1996 and 2010, are also getting in on the functional food action - the demographic has been described as the ultimate wellness consumer, making this age group a ripe market for functional food brands. 

 

Exploring the trend: gut health, probiotics, sleep snacks and more

Gut and digestive health is a particularly popular market within the functional foods trend. This has been gaining in popularity for years, cementing opportunities for growth for function products that claim to boost the digestive system, contain high amounts of fibre or added probiotics. Products like kefir, kombucha and sauerkraut, which are fermented and naturally contain ‘good’ bacteria, have seen huge growth. In the UK, kefir-based products at supermarket Tesco have seen a 400% increase in sales, reflecting shoppers’ interest in gut health and products that support it. The UK’s best-selling kefir is made by Biotiful Dairy, who are innovating with kefir-based soft cheese and desserts. 

Probiotic supplementation has also become almost mainstream: Mintel research shows that 2,000 products containing probiotics have been launched in the last five years in the US. Products like FlapJacked cookie bars and Good Karma cultured probiotic dips and chocolate milks are just two examples of this trend in action - by adding gut-friendly supplements to snacks that might not traditionally be considered healthy, these products have added a functional twist to their offering. Swedish startup YOGUT ME has even developed a kitchen counter machine that can produce personalised probiotic-crammed yogurt. A counterweight to conventional yogurts, which can be laden with sweeteners and artificial flavoring, the brand hopes to branch out into machine-made functional cheeses and frozen treats in future. 

Postbiotics could be an emerging trend in coming years in the functional food for gut health arena - these fermentation byproducts don’t need to be chilled to remain usable, so expect to see these popping onto your radar as they become more mainstream. 

 Thanks to COVID-19, immune-boosting functional food products are also enjoying a renaissance. Expect to see more and more products fortified with vitamins C and D and alternative remedies thought to aid immunity, such as echinacea, turmeric and ginger. Google Trends data shows that internet searches for the combined terms, ‘food’ and ‘immune system’ jumped by 670 per cent between February and March 2020, as the pandemic took hold.  KOR Shots, Suja Functional Shots and Purearth are just a few brands working in this space, offering drinks and shots using functional ingredients like turmeric and ginger that they claim will boost the immune system. 

Sleep-friendly, or sleep-aiding, snacks are also an emerging application of this trend. A small but growing niche is being carved out for products designed for evening indulgence, but healthier than their traditional alternatives and fortified with ingredients that claim to promote relaxation. This trend is particularly apparent in the US, where there is less regulation around sleep aids than in Europe. Goodnight, backed by Nestlé, make relaxing snack bites with added magnesium to aid a full night’s sleep. CBD is also becoming a popular ingredient to aid relaxation, such as Courtney’s Cookies, which also contain added melatonin. 

 Functional snacks like these are popular across all of these trends. While some consumers may not be able to afford supplements, or feel they are worth the cost, buying fortified functional foods using a preexisting food budget makes functional snacks attractive to consumers. Bigger brands are jumping on the bandwagon too: last year Nestlé launched POGO (power-on-the-go) energy bars, which contain ‘superfood’ ingredients such as blueberries and chia.

 

Case Studies: Good Source Snacks & Nightfood Ice Cream

Good Source Snacks is a better-for-you snack brand that makes functional snacks designed for different times of day and with healthy ingredients. Noting the rise of consumer snacking throughout the day, the founders launched three products in 2019: Morning Jump, Afternoon Boost and Evening Chill. They’ve since added Afternoon Break, containing immunity-boosting cranberries and anti-inflammatory blueberries. All of the snacks are 100% natural, non-GMO and gluten-free, and the brand has carefully selected ingredients for each product to aid consumers at different points throughout their day. Despite being coated in dark chocolate (which does, after all, have health benefits), Good Source says their products belong on the healthy snacking shelves rather than with chocolate bars or confectionery, thanks to their functional benefits. The products are available via their own website and Amazon, but plan to expand into brick-and-mortar retail this year. 

Peckish before bedtime? Nightfood Ice Cream sells ‘sleep-friendly’ ice cream fortified with magnesium, calcium and zinc for a better night’s sleep. The ice cream, which comes in nine flavours and boasts its sleep-boosting credentials all over its packaging, doesn’t contain any sleep aids: instead, it’s low in ingredients like sugar and dairy that might cause wakefulness or indigestion. The Cherry Eclipse flavour is made with a type of cherry naturally high in melatonin. Developed by The Sleep Doctor™, the ice cream launched in the US in 2019 and is now available in hundreds of stores nationwide. By choosing ice cream as their product, the founders honed in on a snack that people like to eat close to bedtime, and provided a sleep-conscious solution. Nightfood is even the official ice cream of the American Pregnancy Association (with ice cream one of the most commonly reported pregnancy cravings).

 

The drawbacks of food as medicine 

While the idea of food as ‘medicine’ is very enticing, especially if a product promises to fix that niggling issue or protect you from illness, there is a danger of over-egging the health benefits of a functional food or drink product. Despite the claims of immune-boosting products, for example, no single food product has definitely been found to shield a person French foods multinational Dannon is a warning of what can happen when health benefits are overpromised: their claim that Activia yogurt would regulate bowel health landed them in legal trouble, and the brand had to pay $45 million in damages. So it pays to tread carefully when it comes to making claims and be aware of legal regulations in place in the market where you plan to sell. That’s, perhaps, where products such as kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and the like have it easier – these products naturally contain good-for-you bacteria, whereas brands fortifying their products with healthful supplements have a little bit of a bumpier ride.

The 30-second pitch: Functional foods as medicine  

🧬 What

  • Functional foods and drinks with medicinal benefits are products that claim to have additional health benefits beyond basic nutrition.

🤷‍♂️ Why

  • The coronavirus pandemic has put health at the top of the agenda, and consumers (millennials and Gen X, in particular) are turning to functional food products to boost their health, sleep and moods. 

💊 How

  • CBD-infused food products
  • Foods and added supplements to boost gut and digestive health (e.g. probiotics) 
  • Functional snacks 
  • Immunity-boosting food and drink products 
  • Sleep-friendly foods 
  • Superfoods 

👀 Who

👍 The good

  • Functional foods that contain gut-boosting pre- and probiotics have proven benefits for digestive health, something that’s increasingly important for consumers. 
  • Brands are responding to consumer demand for functional, healthy products, which means greater choice and variety for health-conscious shoppers.
  • Food and drink products that cater to different times of day, omitting caffeine at night for example, or adding energy-boosting ingredients to morning snacks, are proving popular with consumers, but the niche is still small, so there’s plenty of room for emerging brands to make their mark.

👎 The bad 

  • Making unsubstantiated health claims can land brands in legal trouble, so it pays to tread carefully and check your legal standing when touting the health benefits of a product. 
  • Despite the hype, superfoods have not been found to be any better for the body than more conventional fruits and vegetables. 

💡 The bottom line 

  • Functional food as medicine has been named a top food trend for 2021 by numerous outlets and there’s plenty of scope for brands, both established and just starting up, to carve out a niche, but be aware of your legal standing and national regulations when it comes to labelling your ‘healthy’ products.

For a pick-me-up. For comfort. Because it tastes good. For joy. The reasons we eat the food we do are many – but a new trend indicates that for increasing numbers of people, the answer to the question “What’s for dinner?” is being driven by health reasons.  As what we eat increasingly continues to experience a lifestyle rebranding, consumers are turning to food and beverage products that promise not just flavour, enjoyment or nutrition, but also additional functions that boost their health or claim to target a particular issue (like sleep or energy levels). From ice cream designed to calm you down before bed to gut-boosting probiotics added to snacks, these functional foods - which fall under the ‘food as medicine’ trend - can be seen across various food and drink segments and are gaining popularity with consumers concerned about their health in the midst of a global pandemic. 


Functional food as medicine has been named a top food trend for 2021 by numerous outlets and last year, sales of functional food reached $267 billion globally. US sales topped $63 billion in the same year, and China is emerging as a market with the highest growth potential for fortified functional foods, boosted by its growing middle class.

 

What is a functional food? 

Just so we’re clear: a functional food is a good that claims to have a positive effect on health beyond basic sustenance. Functional foods - often described using the term ‘medicinal food’ - provide everything that a normal food provides, but also aim to solve functional needs, whether that’s boosting moods, reducing inflammation or adjusting energy levels.

 

Trend drivers: better health, COVID-19 & the influence of the wellness industry

It’s no secret that a nourishing diet positively influences a person’s general physical condition and moods. But in the past, consumers tended to seek food-based solutions to health problems only in a reactionary sense - changing their diet in response to an illness like diabetes, for example. Today, with greater knowledge among consumers and a growing wellness community, consumers are much more likely to see food as a preventative measure and are therefore seeking out products that can help them to see off future health issues, as well as manage existing concerns. 

COVID-19 is certainly playing its role in driving the trend for ‘food as medicine’. The pandemic has put health at the forefront of people’s minds, particularly the concept of immunity - and by association, immunity-boosting foods. According to Market Research, over 50% of consumers surveyed reported taking supplements to support their immune health in 2020. This trend is expected to manifest further in 2021, with immunity-boosting ingredients added to a greater number of food and beverage products as the coronavirus situation continues to affect consumer choices. 

Younger adults, in particular, are likely to take a holistic view of food as medicine, seeing food and drink products as an essential part of a healthy lifestyle and more likely to take a preventative approach. They are also more likely to have been inspired by wellness and health influencers on social media platforms. Research by Mintel has found under-40s tend to desire ‘quick-fix health products that promise added vitamins, gut health, protein, relaxation’ in an affordable, convenient package. Gen Z, born between 1996 and 2010, are also getting in on the functional food action - the demographic has been described as the ultimate wellness consumer, making this age group a ripe market for functional food brands. 

 

Exploring the trend: gut health, probiotics, sleep snacks and more

Gut and digestive health is a particularly popular market within the functional foods trend. This has been gaining in popularity for years, cementing opportunities for growth for function products that claim to boost the digestive system, contain high amounts of fibre or added probiotics. Products like kefir, kombucha and sauerkraut, which are fermented and naturally contain ‘good’ bacteria, have seen huge growth. In the UK, kefir-based products at supermarket Tesco have seen a 400% increase in sales, reflecting shoppers’ interest in gut health and products that support it. The UK’s best-selling kefir is made by Biotiful Dairy, who are innovating with kefir-based soft cheese and desserts. 

Probiotic supplementation has also become almost mainstream: Mintel research shows that 2,000 products containing probiotics have been launched in the last five years in the US. Products like FlapJacked cookie bars and Good Karma cultured probiotic dips and chocolate milks are just two examples of this trend in action - by adding gut-friendly supplements to snacks that might not traditionally be considered healthy, these products have added a functional twist to their offering. Swedish startup YOGUT ME has even developed a kitchen counter machine that can produce personalised probiotic-crammed yogurt. A counterweight to conventional yogurts, which can be laden with sweeteners and artificial flavoring, the brand hopes to branch out into machine-made functional cheeses and frozen treats in future. 

Postbiotics could be an emerging trend in coming years in the functional food for gut health arena - these fermentation byproducts don’t need to be chilled to remain usable, so expect to see these popping onto your radar as they become more mainstream. 

 Thanks to COVID-19, immune-boosting functional food products are also enjoying a renaissance. Expect to see more and more products fortified with vitamins C and D and alternative remedies thought to aid immunity, such as echinacea, turmeric and ginger. Google Trends data shows that internet searches for the combined terms, ‘food’ and ‘immune system’ jumped by 670 per cent between February and March 2020, as the pandemic took hold.  KOR Shots, Suja Functional Shots and Purearth are just a few brands working in this space, offering drinks and shots using functional ingredients like turmeric and ginger that they claim will boost the immune system. 

Sleep-friendly, or sleep-aiding, snacks are also an emerging application of this trend. A small but growing niche is being carved out for products designed for evening indulgence, but healthier than their traditional alternatives and fortified with ingredients that claim to promote relaxation. This trend is particularly apparent in the US, where there is less regulation around sleep aids than in Europe. Goodnight, backed by Nestlé, make relaxing snack bites with added magnesium to aid a full night’s sleep. CBD is also becoming a popular ingredient to aid relaxation, such as Courtney’s Cookies, which also contain added melatonin. 

 Functional snacks like these are popular across all of these trends. While some consumers may not be able to afford supplements, or feel they are worth the cost, buying fortified functional foods using a preexisting food budget makes functional snacks attractive to consumers. Bigger brands are jumping on the bandwagon too: last year Nestlé launched POGO (power-on-the-go) energy bars, which contain ‘superfood’ ingredients such as blueberries and chia.

 

Case Studies: Good Source Snacks & Nightfood Ice Cream

Good Source Snacks is a better-for-you snack brand that makes functional snacks designed for different times of day and with healthy ingredients. Noting the rise of consumer snacking throughout the day, the founders launched three products in 2019: Morning Jump, Afternoon Boost and Evening Chill. They’ve since added Afternoon Break, containing immunity-boosting cranberries and anti-inflammatory blueberries. All of the snacks are 100% natural, non-GMO and gluten-free, and the brand has carefully selected ingredients for each product to aid consumers at different points throughout their day. Despite being coated in dark chocolate (which does, after all, have health benefits), Good Source says their products belong on the healthy snacking shelves rather than with chocolate bars or confectionery, thanks to their functional benefits. The products are available via their own website and Amazon, but plan to expand into brick-and-mortar retail this year. 

Peckish before bedtime? Nightfood Ice Cream sells ‘sleep-friendly’ ice cream fortified with magnesium, calcium and zinc for a better night’s sleep. The ice cream, which comes in nine flavours and boasts its sleep-boosting credentials all over its packaging, doesn’t contain any sleep aids: instead, it’s low in ingredients like sugar and dairy that might cause wakefulness or indigestion. The Cherry Eclipse flavour is made with a type of cherry naturally high in melatonin. Developed by The Sleep Doctor™, the ice cream launched in the US in 2019 and is now available in hundreds of stores nationwide. By choosing ice cream as their product, the founders honed in on a snack that people like to eat close to bedtime, and provided a sleep-conscious solution. Nightfood is even the official ice cream of the American Pregnancy Association (with ice cream one of the most commonly reported pregnancy cravings).

 

The drawbacks of food as medicine 

While the idea of food as ‘medicine’ is very enticing, especially if a product promises to fix that niggling issue or protect you from illness, there is a danger of over-egging the health benefits of a functional food or drink product. Despite the claims of immune-boosting products, for example, no single food product has definitely been found to shield a person French foods multinational Dannon is a warning of what can happen when health benefits are overpromised: their claim that Activia yogurt would regulate bowel health landed them in legal trouble, and the brand had to pay $45 million in damages. So it pays to tread carefully when it comes to making claims and be aware of legal regulations in place in the market where you plan to sell. That’s, perhaps, where products such as kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and the like have it easier – these products naturally contain good-for-you bacteria, whereas brands fortifying their products with healthful supplements have a little bit of a bumpier ride.

The 30-second pitch: Functional foods as medicine  

🧬 What

  • Functional foods and drinks with medicinal benefits are products that claim to have additional health benefits beyond basic nutrition.

🤷‍♂️ Why

  • The coronavirus pandemic has put health at the top of the agenda, and consumers (millennials and Gen X, in particular) are turning to functional food products to boost their health, sleep and moods. 

💊 How

  • CBD-infused food products
  • Foods and added supplements to boost gut and digestive health (e.g. probiotics) 
  • Functional snacks 
  • Immunity-boosting food and drink products 
  • Sleep-friendly foods 
  • Superfoods 

👀 Who

👍 The good

  • Functional foods that contain gut-boosting pre- and probiotics have proven benefits for digestive health, something that’s increasingly important for consumers. 
  • Brands are responding to consumer demand for functional, healthy products, which means greater choice and variety for health-conscious shoppers.
  • Food and drink products that cater to different times of day, omitting caffeine at night for example, or adding energy-boosting ingredients to morning snacks, are proving popular with consumers, but the niche is still small, so there’s plenty of room for emerging brands to make their mark.

👎 The bad 

  • Making unsubstantiated health claims can land brands in legal trouble, so it pays to tread carefully and check your legal standing when touting the health benefits of a product. 
  • Despite the hype, superfoods have not been found to be any better for the body than more conventional fruits and vegetables. 

💡 The bottom line 

  • Functional food as medicine has been named a top food trend for 2021 by numerous outlets and there’s plenty of scope for brands, both established and just starting up, to carve out a niche, but be aware of your legal standing and national regulations when it comes to labelling your ‘healthy’ products.

For a pick-me-up. For comfort. Because it tastes good. For joy. The reasons we eat the food we do are many – but a new trend indicates that for increasing numbers of people, the answer to the question “What’s for dinner?” is being driven by health reasons.  As what we eat increasingly continues to experience a lifestyle rebranding, consumers are turning to food and beverage products that promise not just flavour, enjoyment or nutrition, but also additional functions that boost their health or claim to target a particular issue (like sleep or energy levels). From ice cream designed to calm you down before bed to gut-boosting probiotics added to snacks, these functional foods - which fall under the ‘food as medicine’ trend - can be seen across various food and drink segments and are gaining popularity with consumers concerned about their health in the midst of a global pandemic. 


Functional food as medicine has been named a top food trend for 2021 by numerous outlets and last year, sales of functional food reached $267 billion globally. US sales topped $63 billion in the same year, and China is emerging as a market with the highest growth potential for fortified functional foods, boosted by its growing middle class.

 

What is a functional food? 

Just so we’re clear: a functional food is a good that claims to have a positive effect on health beyond basic sustenance. Functional foods - often described using the term ‘medicinal food’ - provide everything that a normal food provides, but also aim to solve functional needs, whether that’s boosting moods, reducing inflammation or adjusting energy levels.

 

Trend drivers: better health, COVID-19 & the influence of the wellness industry

It’s no secret that a nourishing diet positively influences a person’s general physical condition and moods. But in the past, consumers tended to seek food-based solutions to health problems only in a reactionary sense - changing their diet in response to an illness like diabetes, for example. Today, with greater knowledge among consumers and a growing wellness community, consumers are much more likely to see food as a preventative measure and are therefore seeking out products that can help them to see off future health issues, as well as manage existing concerns. 

COVID-19 is certainly playing its role in driving the trend for ‘food as medicine’. The pandemic has put health at the forefront of people’s minds, particularly the concept of immunity - and by association, immunity-boosting foods. According to Market Research, over 50% of consumers surveyed reported taking supplements to support their immune health in 2020. This trend is expected to manifest further in 2021, with immunity-boosting ingredients added to a greater number of food and beverage products as the coronavirus situation continues to affect consumer choices. 

Younger adults, in particular, are likely to take a holistic view of food as medicine, seeing food and drink products as an essential part of a healthy lifestyle and more likely to take a preventative approach. They are also more likely to have been inspired by wellness and health influencers on social media platforms. Research by Mintel has found under-40s tend to desire ‘quick-fix health products that promise added vitamins, gut health, protein, relaxation’ in an affordable, convenient package. Gen Z, born between 1996 and 2010, are also getting in on the functional food action - the demographic has been described as the ultimate wellness consumer, making this age group a ripe market for functional food brands. 

 

Exploring the trend: gut health, probiotics, sleep snacks and more

Gut and digestive health is a particularly popular market within the functional foods trend. This has been gaining in popularity for years, cementing opportunities for growth for function products that claim to boost the digestive system, contain high amounts of fibre or added probiotics. Products like kefir, kombucha and sauerkraut, which are fermented and naturally contain ‘good’ bacteria, have seen huge growth. In the UK, kefir-based products at supermarket Tesco have seen a 400% increase in sales, reflecting shoppers’ interest in gut health and products that support it. The UK’s best-selling kefir is made by Biotiful Dairy, who are innovating with kefir-based soft cheese and desserts. 

Probiotic supplementation has also become almost mainstream: Mintel research shows that 2,000 products containing probiotics have been launched in the last five years in the US. Products like FlapJacked cookie bars and Good Karma cultured probiotic dips and chocolate milks are just two examples of this trend in action - by adding gut-friendly supplements to snacks that might not traditionally be considered healthy, these products have added a functional twist to their offering. Swedish startup YOGUT ME has even developed a kitchen counter machine that can produce personalised probiotic-crammed yogurt. A counterweight to conventional yogurts, which can be laden with sweeteners and artificial flavoring, the brand hopes to branch out into machine-made functional cheeses and frozen treats in future. 

Postbiotics could be an emerging trend in coming years in the functional food for gut health arena - these fermentation byproducts don’t need to be chilled to remain usable, so expect to see these popping onto your radar as they become more mainstream. 

 Thanks to COVID-19, immune-boosting functional food products are also enjoying a renaissance. Expect to see more and more products fortified with vitamins C and D and alternative remedies thought to aid immunity, such as echinacea, turmeric and ginger. Google Trends data shows that internet searches for the combined terms, ‘food’ and ‘immune system’ jumped by 670 per cent between February and March 2020, as the pandemic took hold.  KOR Shots, Suja Functional Shots and Purearth are just a few brands working in this space, offering drinks and shots using functional ingredients like turmeric and ginger that they claim will boost the immune system. 

Sleep-friendly, or sleep-aiding, snacks are also an emerging application of this trend. A small but growing niche is being carved out for products designed for evening indulgence, but healthier than their traditional alternatives and fortified with ingredients that claim to promote relaxation. This trend is particularly apparent in the US, where there is less regulation around sleep aids than in Europe. Goodnight, backed by Nestlé, make relaxing snack bites with added magnesium to aid a full night’s sleep. CBD is also becoming a popular ingredient to aid relaxation, such as Courtney’s Cookies, which also contain added melatonin. 

 Functional snacks like these are popular across all of these trends. While some consumers may not be able to afford supplements, or feel they are worth the cost, buying fortified functional foods using a preexisting food budget makes functional snacks attractive to consumers. Bigger brands are jumping on the bandwagon too: last year Nestlé launched POGO (power-on-the-go) energy bars, which contain ‘superfood’ ingredients such as blueberries and chia.

 

Case Studies: Good Source Snacks & Nightfood Ice Cream

Good Source Snacks is a better-for-you snack brand that makes functional snacks designed for different times of day and with healthy ingredients. Noting the rise of consumer snacking throughout the day, the founders launched three products in 2019: Morning Jump, Afternoon Boost and Evening Chill. They’ve since added Afternoon Break, containing immunity-boosting cranberries and anti-inflammatory blueberries. All of the snacks are 100% natural, non-GMO and gluten-free, and the brand has carefully selected ingredients for each product to aid consumers at different points throughout their day. Despite being coated in dark chocolate (which does, after all, have health benefits), Good Source says their products belong on the healthy snacking shelves rather than with chocolate bars or confectionery, thanks to their functional benefits. The products are available via their own website and Amazon, but plan to expand into brick-and-mortar retail this year. 

Peckish before bedtime? Nightfood Ice Cream sells ‘sleep-friendly’ ice cream fortified with magnesium, calcium and zinc for a better night’s sleep. The ice cream, which comes in nine flavours and boasts its sleep-boosting credentials all over its packaging, doesn’t contain any sleep aids: instead, it’s low in ingredients like sugar and dairy that might cause wakefulness or indigestion. The Cherry Eclipse flavour is made with a type of cherry naturally high in melatonin. Developed by The Sleep Doctor™, the ice cream launched in the US in 2019 and is now available in hundreds of stores nationwide. By choosing ice cream as their product, the founders honed in on a snack that people like to eat close to bedtime, and provided a sleep-conscious solution. Nightfood is even the official ice cream of the American Pregnancy Association (with ice cream one of the most commonly reported pregnancy cravings).

 

The drawbacks of food as medicine 

While the idea of food as ‘medicine’ is very enticing, especially if a product promises to fix that niggling issue or protect you from illness, there is a danger of over-egging the health benefits of a functional food or drink product. Despite the claims of immune-boosting products, for example, no single food product has definitely been found to shield a person French foods multinational Dannon is a warning of what can happen when health benefits are overpromised: their claim that Activia yogurt would regulate bowel health landed them in legal trouble, and the brand had to pay $45 million in damages. So it pays to tread carefully when it comes to making claims and be aware of legal regulations in place in the market where you plan to sell. That’s, perhaps, where products such as kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and the like have it easier – these products naturally contain good-for-you bacteria, whereas brands fortifying their products with healthful supplements have a little bit of a bumpier ride.

The 30-second pitch: Functional foods as medicine  

🧬 What

  • Functional foods and drinks with medicinal benefits are products that claim to have additional health benefits beyond basic nutrition.

🤷‍♂️ Why

  • The coronavirus pandemic has put health at the top of the agenda, and consumers (millennials and Gen X, in particular) are turning to functional food products to boost their health, sleep and moods. 

💊 How

  • CBD-infused food products
  • Foods and added supplements to boost gut and digestive health (e.g. probiotics) 
  • Functional snacks 
  • Immunity-boosting food and drink products 
  • Sleep-friendly foods 
  • Superfoods 

👀 Who

👍 The good

  • Functional foods that contain gut-boosting pre- and probiotics have proven benefits for digestive health, something that’s increasingly important for consumers. 
  • Brands are responding to consumer demand for functional, healthy products, which means greater choice and variety for health-conscious shoppers.
  • Food and drink products that cater to different times of day, omitting caffeine at night for example, or adding energy-boosting ingredients to morning snacks, are proving popular with consumers, but the niche is still small, so there’s plenty of room for emerging brands to make their mark.

👎 The bad 

  • Making unsubstantiated health claims can land brands in legal trouble, so it pays to tread carefully and check your legal standing when touting the health benefits of a product. 
  • Despite the hype, superfoods have not been found to be any better for the body than more conventional fruits and vegetables. 

💡 The bottom line 

  • Functional food as medicine has been named a top food trend for 2021 by numerous outlets and there’s plenty of scope for brands, both established and just starting up, to carve out a niche, but be aware of your legal standing and national regulations when it comes to labelling your ‘healthy’ products.
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