Functional foods extend across many different supermarket fixtures, so in this arena milk, snacks, fresh foods and chilled drinks buyers were up against each other.

Despite the diversity of products, there was homogeneity in the characteristics valued by suppliers. Skills traditionally associated with buyers - decisiveness, clarity of communication, reliability and honesty - were praised, but, because this area is relatively new, other attributes were also highly regarded.

These included dynamism, an ability to absorb information quickly - essential in an area delivering complex health solutions - and encouragement and support.

Star buyer Michael Luck from Sainsbury is no stranger to Six of the Best. This is the first time he has topped the bill, but he has twice been among the stars in juices and smoothies, and also polled well within dairy last year. The suppliers nominating Luck -focused on his “bold decision-making, ability to recognise opportunities and willingness to investigate alternative options”.

One pointed out: “He's very approachable and proactive, and will always challenge processes to implement ideas and lead the market.”

Like Luck, Adrian Gash has featured in a previous Six of the Best line-up, polling well in crisps, nuts and snacks last year. Suppliers praised his responsiveness and organisational skills, with one describing him as “a real gentleman”. Another said: “Even though he has a big range of products to look -after, he always talks as if your products are the most important.”

Sarah McConkey at Tesco is a newcomer to our top six line-up, as are Tim Wykes from Morrisons and Tesco buyers Jenny West and Helen Bissell.

McConkey's calmness and common sense in dealing with difficult situations was flagged up by one supplier, while another added: “She's always looking for new ideas and is prepared to listen if you don't agree with her.”

Wykes was lauded for his understanding of functional foods and customer focus, as well as his emphasis on long-term category growth: “He's willing to listen to new ideas, has a sensible and practical approach, and will try to find a mutually agreeable solution whenever possible,” said one fan.

Jenny West from Tesco - a trainee buyer - was singled out for her “unfailing enthusiasm and support”, while her predecessor, Helen Bissell, now a buyer for ambient desserts and pickles, olives and gherkins, was praised for her supportive and farsighted approach.

Star Buyer Michael Luck - Buyer for Juices, Cream and Active Health Drinks, Sainsbury

Luck joined Sainsbury's graduate training scheme four years ago and kicked off his buying career there in baby food and accessories. He moved to his current role in October 2003 and says he has seen “massive changes in the market”, particularly the growth of active health drinks, during that time. He had -previously spent a year as part of his marketing and accountancy degree -working in a Marks & Spencer store, both as temporary store manager and running the men's and homewear sections.

Sarah McConkey - Buyer for added value milk, Tesco

McConkey joined Tesco three years ago, straight from university. With a buying role in her sights, she took on an admin job in the dairy buying team to get a feel for the business, gain insight into how the business works and understanding of business needs. After a year, she took a joint admin and buying role and stepped up to a full buying role 18 months ago.

Jenny West - Trainee buyer for NRT, slimming, health foods and diagnostics, Tesco

This time last year, West was studying for a business degree at Nottingham Trent University. Her course included a placement with IBM but Tesco is her first major employer. She joined four months ago and, while she admits she is still getting to grips with her role, she is enthusiastic about reviewing new products and assessing customer needs.

Helen Bissell - Buyer for ambient desserts, pickles, olives and gherkins, Tesco

Bissell joined Tesco straight from university on the commercial graduate training scheme in September 2004. She was store-based for three months before becoming a buyer for slimming and anti-smoking aids, health foods and diagnostic kits. She moved to ambient desserts, pickles, olives and gherkins earlier this year.

Tim Wykes - Fresh foods buyer, Morrisons

Wykes's current buying responsibilities include yoghurts, chilled desserts and hot eating desserts, but he started his career with Morrisons in 1998 on the marketing team as own label packaging co-ordinator. Two years later he joined the fresh foods buying team as a trainee buyer and was promoted to fresh food buyer after 15 months.

Adrian Gash - Senior grocery buyer, Waitrose

Gash began his buying career with Alliance Unichem in 1995 before moving on to Safeway. He was a buyer for pharmacy, then plant bread and morning goods, crisps, snacks and nuts. He joined Waitrose in October 2004 as buyer for crisps, snacks, nuts and long-life milk and his portfolio has now been extended to include mineral and flavoured water.