You may be surprised to learn that, until fairly recently, Coca-Cola was presented and sold to consumers as a functional food.
Pharmacist John Pemberton’s prototype recipe, that evolved into Coca-Cola, originally included both alcohol and coca leaf (the source of cocaine). Prohibition in Atlanta in 1886 prompted the removal of alcohol from the formulation. Coca remained the main active nutraceutical in Coca-Cola until 1903, when it was replaced by caffeine.
During the first 70-80 years of its existence, Coca-Cola, now universally viewed as an indulgence beverage, used nurses and doctors in its advertising to convince people of its wellness benefits.
The link to COVID-19 restrictions
Human nature being what it is, we are hardwired to seek shelter in a storm. The initial shock of COVID-19 initially translated into panic buying of household staples, but the more profound and lasting impact may be a heightened consumer interest in functional foods.
The Ipsos FIVE daily consumer diary panel tracks what 20,000 respondents ate and drank yesterday across all categories, brands, occasions and venues. The Ipsos FIVE database quantifies shifts in both behaviour and attitudes.
In 2019 and the first two months of 2020, Ipsos Five was already tracking faster growth in consumption of functional foods compared to overall food consumption, roughly +8% to +9%, year-over-year. In the first month of lockdown, the rate of growth of functional foods consumption increased an additional 13% versus the pre-COVID timeframe.
Kathy Perrotta, VP of market strategy and understanding with Ipsos, says: “The functional food choice is (generally) motivated by the need for specific benefits, like aiding with digestion. Beyond physical health and dietary requirements, consumers also opt for functional foods to meet personal emotional and lifestyle needs and beliefs (Exhibit 1)…. The rising focus on bolstering personal immunity is certainly a sign of the times and something we could expect to continue as a result our current health pandemic.”
Perrotta suggests that this recent bump in consumer purchases of functional foods was “driven by young adults now eating in a highly homebound environment, who seem to be more focused on overall wellness benefits”.
Follow the crowd
The online app Pinterest refers to itself as a visual discovery engine. It is a platform where people go to find inspiration for food, fashion, hobbies, crafting and more. Pinterest, which started only ten years ago, currently welcomes nearly 400 million Pinners to the platform every month to explore and experience more than 200 billion ideas that have been saved.
A review of global Pinterest searches for the last two weeks of March 2020 versus pre-COVID-19 reveals that consumer searches for “healthy things to cook” increased 4X in the first weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown, when consumer interest in healthy eating spiked.
Pinterest searches in the month of June for healthy eating in Canada were way up, year-over-year:
- Canadian consumer searches for “Healthy things to cook” increased 3.5X;
- “Healthy cooking” searches were up 2.9X, and;
- “Healthy snacks” searches were up 35%.
Form follows function
Sophie Mir, associate editor at consumer and foodservice insights provider Technomic, confirms that Technomic research has been tracking growth in better-for-you “healthful” foods for the last several years. In Technomic’s 2018 Canadian Convenience Store Foodservice Consumer Trend Report, 41% of consumers reported that healthfulness of food/beverages is an important attribute in deciding to purchase prepared foods or beverages from a convenience store.
However, Mir also notes a “shift in consumers’ definition of health moving away from the emphasis on nutritional benefits (such as lower fat or lower cholesterol) to functionality, that is, ingredients that provide holistic gains… (Including physical, mental and emotional benefits).”
Practically, there are a significant number of examples of products for c-store operators to consider (Exhibit 2). Technomic advises its clients that “offering food and beverages with functional ingredients (aligns) with what consumers are looking for.” At the same time, c-store operators have an opportunity to, in partnership with manufacturers, draw awareness and educate their consumers on functional benefits via signage, POP information, online advertising, and social media channels.
Immunity is key
Andrew Wardlaw, of MMR Research Worldwide Research, recently noted that “research findings published in December 2019 by Wellmune, part of the Kerry Group, spanning 11,000 consumers across 14 global markets, found that nearly two thirds (63%) placed immune health ahead of supporting healthy bones and joints, good digestive health, improve energy levels and heart health.” This suggests that, even prior to COVID-19, consumers around the world were making food purchase decisions motivated by immune health. Further, “new research undertaken by MMR in association with TOLUNA in April 2020 found that immunity was now the number one health concern in China and South Africa, and only beaten by heart health in the UK and U.S.”
Don’t miss the functional foods train
With “live and active cultures” promoting gut health, U.S. Greek Yogurt brand Chobani, from its origins in an abandoned yoghurt factory in New Berlin, New York in 2007, has risen to be a market maker and the dominant player in the U.S. premium Greek yoghurt category. Chobani took a dormant commodity category upscale, and went from zero share to being a multi-billion dollar CPG player in about 10 years. It’s currently investing heavily in plant-based dairy in general, and oat milk specifically.
Consider the Canadian brand, Sapsucker, an Ontario-based new entrant to the wellness beverage market available across Canada. Sapsucker markets itself as a Maple Tree Water, a “tapped in Canada” naturally hydrating beverage that advocates for people to make healthy, mindful choices. The product is harvested sustainably from Canadian forests, and purports to be “plant-based and nutrient rich, powered by 46 naturally occurring minerals, vitamins and antioxidants.” Its lineup includes three lightly carbonated tree water beverages: The Original One, The Lime One, and the Lemon One. Like Coke, Sapsucker sells taste, lifestyle and feeling: its tagline is “Sip a Sapsucker, because there’s no time for regrets.”
Clearly, life as we’ve known it changed. The path forward demands that operators remain relevant with customers. The gap between seeing and embracing new functional foods, and achieving a return on these investments, is a bridge worth crossing for operators.
Darren Climans is a foodservice insights professional with close to 20 years’ experience partnering with broadline distributors, CPG suppliers, and foodservice operators. His practice is to understand issue-based decisions by taking a data-driven approach to strategic decision making.