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Healthy food hype

Science is making better foods. Shoppers are skeptical, but grocers can help

Like most consumers these days, Darcy Ewanchuk, a 58-year-old self-employed office administrator in St. Catharines, Ont., does her best to eat smart. Plenty of fruit and vegetables, plus, she regularly buys eggs fortified with omega-3 fatty acids. And she loves yogurt with probiotics.   At doesn’t mean she’ll grab anything labelled “healthy” in the grocery aisle. “It makes me nervous when I read a list of ingredients and see that something has been added to supposedly make the product good for you,” she says. “I wonder whether that added ingredient may be good for one thing, but then down the road may be harmful for something else. My preference is for good, [naturally] wholesome food.”

Ewanchuk isn’t the only one who’s leery. Other consumers around the world feel the same way. A report by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada concluded “artificially introduced healthy ingredients may not be seen as a genuine healthiness by some consumers. In fact, a significant segment of worldwide consumers believe that functionalfoods are used to compensate for an unhealthy lifestyle.”

Still, there’s a groundswell of interest in any product that promises good health these days. A survey of panelists who completed the NPD Group’s National Eating Trends diary found a signifi cant number are keen to buy foods with healthier ingredients. For instance, 34% would like to eat more omega-3 fatty acids.

No wonder then that growth of the functional food segment is pegged at anywhere from 8% to 14% by agriculture department offi cials. Nutrition experts agree that a lot of people can benefi t from foods with an added health boost. “Probiotics, fatty acids and plant sterols are all great additions to food products, since we don’t usually get enough in our daily diet,” says Alexandra Anca, a registered dietitian in Toronto. “But consumers don’t usually know much about the healthy ingredients being added to foods.   They definitely need a lot more information, and point of sale in grocery stores is a perfect place to provide that information.”

Labels show consumers what’s legit


How do consumers know when a food’s touted health benefits are real? “That’s one of the big problems the functional food industry faces,” says Peter Jones, director of the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods & Nutraceuticals at the University of Manitoba.

To help make sense of it all for consumers, Health Canada allows labels to make claims such as “cholesterol-free” and a few other disease-risk reducing statements, including:

* A healthy diet low in sodium and high in potassium linked to reduced risk of high blood pressure.

* A healthy diet with adequate calcium and vitamin D linked to reduced risk of osteoporosis.

* A healthy diet low in saturated fat and trans fats linked to reduced risk of heart disease.

* A healthy diet rich in vegetables and fruit linked to reduced risk of some types of cancers.

* Non-fermentable carbohydrates in gums and hard candies linked to the non-promotion of cavities.


More functions soon

These days it would take a PhD in nutritional chemistry to understand the how and why of the ever expandingrange of foods that off er added healthy ingredients. Consumers are getting used to words like “prebiotics,” “probiotics,” “fatty acids,” “lutein” and “antioxidants” on product labels and they can expect lots more to come down the pipeline as food researchers continue to study not only the potential health benefi ts of various ingredients, but how to incorporate them into food products.

In June, the arrival of margarine from Unilever Canada added yet another new term to the grocery store lexicon: “plant sterols” (see “Superfood 2.0” on previous page). Meanwhile, mature categories of fortified and enhanced foods are being segmented even further.

Adding omega-3 fatty acids to eggs and dairy products is nothing new at this point, but marketers are highlighting the diff erent sources (flax or fi sh oil) and the specifi c benefi ts of each of the three fatty acids that are considered essential to human health. Agropur’s Natrel’s Omega-3 DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) milk is one example. It’s aimed at children to support normal development of the brain, eyes and nerves.   The enriched milk from Natrel is said to contain three times more DHA than other milk with added DHA.

Au natural!

Seeing omega-3s, probiotics or plant sterols on a label excites some shoppers. Others aren’t so impressed, says Desiree Nielsen, nutrition operations manager at Choices Markets in B.C., which specializes in organic and natural foods. “Our customers tend to look for natural products more than foods with added health benefi ts.” In fact, says Nielsen, “they don’t always view those products as healthy because they consider them processed foods.”

Burnbrae Farms markets a range of omega-3 eggs that is diff erentiated by what’s fed to the laying hens. Essential fatty acids found in Naturegg Omega 3 come from chickens fed a flax-based diet, while Naturegg Omega Pro is a source of omega-3 produced by feeding chickens flax seeds and a small amount of fish oil to boost the level of DHA. Adding alfalfa to the feed produces eggs that contain lutein, an antioxidant that promotes eye health.

Probiotic yogurts have been on the market for some time. But the emphasis is now on promoting the strength and type of strain of the living organism said to promote gut health.  The reason: while all yogurts contain active cultures, not all have the particular strain of bacteria, or a sufficient amount, to be beneficial. As consumers get used to the idea of eating vast amounts of live probiotic cultures, the leading probiotic yogurt brands continue to innovate with new flavours and formats.  These include Danone’s Activia (which is now available in a drinkable format), Yoplait’s Yoptimal (now with a new crunchy version with pumpkin, sunfl ower and flax seeds) and Parmalat’s BioBest (with two new versions: one with antioxidants, the other with plant sterols).

Researchers at the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods & Nutraceuticals at the University of Manitoba are looking at health benefits of foods such as barley and yellow peas and developing new functional foods for the market. Grocers can soon expect to be stocking chicken and turkey breasts enriched with omega-3s and antioxidants, says Peter Jones, the centre’s director. He adds that the taste is “excellent.”


Top 4 Tips to Educate Customers

1. Teach your staff about functional foods and their benefits. Customers will be impressed when store employees can talk knowledgeably about the growing range of these foods.

2. Point out the benefits of foods with healthy ingredients during grocery store nutrition tours and talk up healthy food products during in-store cooking classes and food workshops.

3. Hire a dietitian to educate consumers during in-store promotions and taste tests of various functional foods.

4. Use grocery store magazines newsletters and flyers to provide information about the growing range of foods that have added health benefits.


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