From beauty-enhancing beer to orange juice with added calcium, over the past few years, supermarket shelves have been awash with the rise of foods with supplements and nutritional claims.

Functional foods, also called nutritionals, are standard products with added ingredients, which proponents claim offer positive health effects beyond basic nutrition. The trend, which originated in Japan, has moved on from the traditional friendly-bacteria probiotics and cholesterol-lowering spreads, to more extreme and unsubstantiated claims. One such claim is that of skin rejeuvenation from eating collagen-infused foods, such as jelly sticks and sodas.

As consumer demand for health and nutrition increases, celebrity chefs campaign for an end to unnecessary additives and call for more transparency and honesty about what is in our food. Manufacturers are therefore finding new ways to marry the concepts of health, taste and changing consumer trends. With quick and simple healthy food at the forefront of current trends, companies are experimenting with functional ingredients that claim to offer nutritional benefits. But are functional foods really the answer?

Blurred lines

The availability of nutritionals and functional foods has quickly grown over the past five years, alongside a number of regulations and restrictions surrounding the claims companies can make about food.

"A lot of companies fall foul because they think they’re not making a specific health claim."

When the trend emerged on the UK market a few years ago, this was not the case. The number of restrictions regulating the supplement market was predicted to increase, and so companies began to find new ways that supplements could be delivered via food, to avoid tight regulation and reach a wider audience.

"There was concern that there would be very tight regulations on whether people could actually buy over-the-counter and they’d become a prescriptive thing," says nutrition and health consultant Liz Tucker. "A lot of supplement companies were looking to go more into the food industry because they felt they may lose their business just selling supplements because it would be tightly regulated."

However, as more supplement companies moved into the functional foods market, confusion grew around what is a substantiated claim. In 2006, the EU adopted new regulations on nutrition and health claims made on foods, with a list of approved ingredients and health claims. This ensured that consumers were not being fed false or misleading information.

These regulations, alongside tightened requirements for nutritional profile-labelling on the packaging, aimed to prevent companies from marketing unhealthy food and drink as healthy simply by adding a functional ingredient. However, according to Tucker, it is still unclear about just what is and is not a nutritional health claim.

"A lot of companies fall foul because they think they’re not making a specific health claim, because they are not saying it’s high in calcium, or calcium gives you strong bones, so they don’t need to worry too much about the claims" she says. "But what they are saying is that it’s nutritious, that it’s full of energy, that its revitalising, it’s good for you. These are actually all classified as health claims and therefore need to be backed-up by specific health or nutrition claims."

From health to beauty

As the trend developed, new niche markets appeared targeting more specific areas of health and, more recently, beauty. From what had been a healthy eating trend, with claims of lowering cholesterol and heart disease, gave way to food products with added supplements promising to improve your appearance, as well as general wellbeing and mood.

Collagen has been widely used in products, from beer in Japan to chocolate in the UK. It is commonly used in the beauty supplement market as a way to boost the health of hair, skin, and nails. Although collagen is naturally found in the body, the amount decreases over time, which can lead to dry skin and sagging. Collagen supplements claim to help counter these effects. They appear in a variety of forms, from pills to liquid vials, but for many consumers the taste is overpowering and off-putting.

Functional chocolate company Nutricoa has been attempting to make supplements more palatable using the strong flavour of chocolate. Dark chocolate has long been linked to health claims, such as lowering blood pressure, improving mood, and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

"Even people who try to maintain a very balanced diet don’t always maintain it."

Anne Francoise Weyns-Papaleo, the company’s chief chocolate explorer explains: "A lot of people take vitamins and supplements but nobody that I know of enjoys swallowing a pill. That’s why a lot of pills are sugar-coated and have a lot of fillers in them because you don’t want to taste the active ingredients because they taste pretty horrendous. So we tried to formulate it in a way that makes it still healthy because we are not adding a huge amount of calories to it."

Substituting pills for food to mask the taste of supplements may be an efficient delivery mechanism. However Weynes-Papaleo acknowledges that the food should be portion-controlled to prevent the consumer over-eating. Nutricoa chocolates come in five portion controlled bars, in an attempt to curb this behaviour. They are intended to be eaten once per day as a treat, to replace a milk chocolate bars or snacks, rather than as an everyday food or meal. In this form, the functional food acts as a vehicle for a supplement, with research-backed health claims stated on the company’s website.

Dietary requirements

While it is widely understood that functional food cannot replace a balanced diet, there is a strong argument that value-added food fills a gap in our eating habits left by changes in lifestyle.

"There is no doubt that everyone is busier," says Weyns-Papaleo. "Even people who try to maintain a very balanced diet don’t always maintain it because when you are on the go you will pick up something. You also have a lot of people who have more specialised diets now."

The myriad diets that have arisen in recent years have opened a gap in the market for supplements in food. Weyns-Papaleo explained that consumers who follow vegetarian or gluten-free diets may be missing nutritional elements that functional foods can fill.
While these trends have grown in popularity, Tucker argues that they are simply a reaction to our modern eating habits. As consumers move away from the sit-down family meal and towards easily prepared and on-the-go foods, the products that satisfied consumers 50 or 60 years ago are no longer being consumed today, as trade boarders have increased the amount and variety being used.

"There are three generations of people bought up on convenience food now."

"A natural diet on foods that are produced in this country is a very good diet. But that has kind of died out," says Tucker. "If you look at busy people and convenience food, there are three generations of people bought up on convenience food now. They will get home and see it arduous to put together a bit of fish and some vegetables, they just want to throw some pasta and sauce in a pan. Our eating habits have brought in this market, and it is definitely a market-led thing to eat more nutrition, but not necessarily from a natural source."

Although Weyns-Papaleo says: "In an ideal world, if you had a perfectly balanced diet you wouldn’t need anything else. You wouldn’t need any supplements, or multivitamins, but that is highly unrealistic because of the way that we live."

While there are a number of tested and proven functional food products on the market, they do not replace a balanced diet. The argument remains that a number of value-added foods offer benefits that cannot be found in standard store-brought products; however, Tucker is not convinced that the functional food market will take over mainstream consumer eating habits. This is not least because many of these products are out of the price point of an average day-to-day consumer, who may be able to find the added nutrition in cheaper sources.

"Functional foods are all there for a food market, such as sport food, whereas with general eating most people just want to eat food that they enjoy eating," she says. "At the end of the day people should eat a balanced diet where their nutrition comes from natural sources."