What do British consumers know and think about functional foods?

In a qualitative survey, researchers from the Campden & Chorleywood Food Research Association Group, Gloucestershire, England, explored the knowledge and attitudes of British consumers towards "functional foods". People from a range of lifestyles, age groups and social classes were invited to take part in a guided discussion on "diet and health".

None of the participants in the study were familiar with the term "functional foods". Most of them said they had never heard the term used. Only when they were given a more detailed explanation such as "functional foods are foods with specific benefits", were some of the participants able to come up with examples, such as Benecol- or Flora pro-active margarine, Yakult yoghurt and other bio-yoghurts with proactive cultures, and shredded wheat. However, other typical functional foods such as eggs with omega-3 fatty acids, cheese with added cultures, soy and linseed bread with high natural oestrogen content, and water with added calcium, were mentioned only when first suggested by the discussion leaders.

Not only was there a low level of awareness of such products; there was also a low degree of acceptance. Even though most British consumers believed that eating healthy food was one necessary precondition for their personal well-being, most were rather sceptical about foods with added ingredients.

Their reluctant attitude came from a lack of familiarity of the product and a poor understanding of how the addition of an ingredient could bring about any health benefit. Most consumers had a very basic concept of healthy food as being low in fat and sugar, and high in vitamins. They had rather vague ideas about what was meant by such expressions as "lacto-bacteria", "added cultures", and "omega 3-fatty acids". Often, additives were seen as unnatural, and consequently there was mistrust with regard to whether they were safe. In general, there was the feeling among the participants that additives might negatively affect the taste and quality of food products. The more "natural" or "untreated" the participants perceived a food to be, the more they accepted it as being "healthy".

The consumers tended not to trust health claims per se, but would rather put their faith in products with which they were already familiar or which had been tested and endorsed by a well-known, reliable independent organisation. In general, they accepted the health claims of foods they commonly used and which had always been considered to be "good" or "healthy", e.g. bread, cereals, and yoghurt. Claims for foods with a less healthy image, such as cheese or eggs were viewed with scepticism. "In the mind of the consumer, adding a health benefit to a food that was considered to be unhealthy was a contradiction, and a cause for mistrust," said H.C. Newsholme, the leader of the study.

Many consumers thought that functional foods were only good for people with specific health problems. This could present marketing difficulties: men might not buy bread high in natural oestrogen because they believed it to be beneficial solely for women; young people might refrain from purchasing water with added calcium because they perceived it as a product for elderly people with osteoporosis (bone disease).

Newsholme states that, "In order to develop new functional foods that will be better accepted in today's marketplace, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of consumer attitudes."



Campden & Chorleywood Food Research Association Group (CCFRA),

Gloucestershire, England

The detailed R&D Report No. 162  can be ordered here.


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