Functional foods look set to turn into a goldmine but there are many factors that must be carefully addressed to ensure that happens, says Sarah Dowding Issues of best performance Talk to any Research and Development professional and the subject of functional foods is not far from their enquiring minds. In a climate of increased demand for convenience and within a culture of self medication, industry is responding apace to consumer demands and redefining traditional product boundaries. Whatever label you choose to attach to them, functional foods, nutraceuticals or pharmafoods are here to stay.......or are they? The key to business success surely lies in understanding consumers' needs, wants and expectations, and then meeting them. It all sounds easy ­ do your research and identify consumer needs and wants, invest in robust and credible research and development and, after some years you may have developed a truly innovative product. But on top of this you've got to remember that what consumers really want is food that is tasty, convenient and nutritious to complement the preventative, performance, health enhancement and cosmetic benefits that will undoubtedly ensue. If you've got all that right, then it's time to entice those customers with your marketing strategy to reap the benefits of the R&D investment. Whilst there are guidelines on nutrition claims such as low fat' and high fibre', current food law does not permit a food to be described as being capable of treating, preventing or curing a disease. Reduction of risk claims are also not permitted. Yet this is what functional foods are all about. Such legislation has the potential to inhibit innovation if investment in R&D cannot be realised. Communicating the health benefits of these products is what it's all about. The Joint Health Claims Initiative representing enforcers, industry and consumers has been successful in agreeing a code of practice in relation to claims. Critically, this code of practice outlines the strength of scientific evidence which will be required to support a health claim for a food product. The challenges this market face include confusion over the terminology, complex and yet sometimes vague health messages, and restrictive legislation. What's more, product failures grab the media's attention in a climate where the advent and rapid demise of GM foods has brought food safety issues to the fore. Consumers begin to distrust what they read and become sceptical of the intention. Credibility is the name of the game and gaining credibility will be expensive. Yet while functional foods must earn price premiums these premiums must be acceptable to consumers in order to create mass-market brands. But consumers can work for functional foods too ­ they're more aware now than ever before of the link between diet and health, and functional foods are seen as a quick fix' solution to an unhealthy lifestyle. And an ageing population, advances in medical knowledge and changes in food consumption habits are all contributing to the growth of the sector. Which means that now, in the UK alone, functional foods are worth more than £300m, according to Novartis, which expects them to double to £600m. Researchers at Euromonitor have forecast that without interference from restrictive legislation, the global market for functional foods will reach $51.3bn. Head of Novartis' global functional foods division John Burke says: "We think functional foods are here to stay. They are one of the fastest growing areas in food markets and it is not a whimsical consumer trend." Areas of future development undoubtedly include products that can enhance mood and improve cognitive performance. Improving the nutritional profile of children's diets is also likely to be the focus of major investment, and dietary strategies to improve sporting performance will continue to be developed. While such foods do not replace a varied and balanced diet or a healthy lifestyle, they are an exciting development likely to have a major impact in the marketplace. {{LEADING EDGE }}