Marketing Functional Foods

In a world of capitalism, marketing is often the key to success. No surprise, then, that food manufacturers would try their hand at marketing “functional” foods because of consumers’ trends toward buying organic, natural, and even whole foods.

According to Wikipedia, functional foods are “any fresh or processed food claiming to have a health-promoting or disease-preventing property beyond the basic function of supplying nutrients. The general category of functional foods includes processed food or foods fortified with health-promoting additives, like ‘vitamin-enriched’ products.”

An article in The Economist, explains how multinational food giants are accelerating investments in “functional” foods that are intentionally modified to make them healthier or more nutritious, because consumers in wealthier markets worldwide have demanded foods with minimal processing.

Examples include: enriching eggs with omega-3 fatty acids to combat hypertension; adding chemicals to margarines to impede the absorption of cholesterol; and enriching yoghurt with bacteria. (Wait, I thought yoghurt already has bacteria in it? Isn’t that why it’s so good for our digestive systems?)

Firms selling everything from energy drinks to breakfast foods to artificial sweeteners are rushing to add miracle ingredients to their products in the hope that the supposed benefits will entice customers.

However, this marketing approach hasn’t set well with regulators. For example, when General Mills put a claim on its Cheerios box that it was “clinically proven to reduce cholesterol,” the FDA decided that it had gone too far.

And it’s likely consumers will see through the fluff, too. When the Smart Choices program (backed by most of the nation’s largest food manufacturers and “designed to help shoppers easily identify smarter food and beverage choices”) endorsed Froot Loops cereal because it met their nutritional criteria, some eyebrows were raised. In a New York Times article, Celeste A. Clark, senior vice president of global nutrition for Kellogg’s, said “Froot Loops is an excellent source of many essential vitamins and minerals and it is also a good source of fiber with only 12 grams of sugar.” Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?

Back to marketing: The problem is that we’re overwhelmed by choices in the first place. Perhaps the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program will help divert people from processed food at the store and encourage them to buy fruits and vegetables at the local farmers’ markets. Sure, they’ll be marketing food items, too. But it’s a lot simpler to shopping at the farmers’ market with its local food products than to scan the myriad of items in a grocery store that come from all over the world.

After all, you are what you eat.


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