Modern consumers expect more. Over the past decade, the novelty and usefulness of ‘dual purpose’ products have driven a trend across almost every industry. From Bluetooth sunglasses to the ‘flask scarf’ that answers our drinking dreams, we are attracted to the originality of these items, as much as to the life-enhancing convenience that they offer.  

As we continue to seek out products with more to give, various industries have risen to the challenge. For example, the dual purpose trend hit the cosmetics industry in a big way, a few years ago, with the take-off of BB and CC creams – we now expect our tinting foundations to moisturize our skin, and our moisturizers to provide protection from the sun. Meanwhile, for many consumers, it is no longer enough to eat yoghurt for its protein and calcium content – it must come packed with L. casei cultures and extra vitamins D and B6, to boost digestive and immunological health. Within the food industry, consumer demand for more has been met with a rise in ‘functional foods’. 


A functional food is one that delivers additional or enhanced health benefits over and above its basic nutritional value. Some are generated around a particular functional ingredient, such as foods containing probiotics, prebiotics, or plant stanols and sterols. Others are fortified with a nutrient that would not usually be present to any great extent. It has long been recognised that these foods have the potential to impact public health in a positive way. For example, vitamin D has been added to cow's milk since the 1930s in many countries, in efforts to reduce rickets, and in 1998 the US began adding folic acid to enriched grain products to prevent neural tube defects in new-born babies.

The idea that foods might provide therapeutic benefits is clearly not a new concept. In fact, as long as 2500 years ago, the father of medicine, Hippocrates, famously stated, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. However, it wasn’t until the first half of the 20th century that scientists identified the essential vitamins and minerals, and understood their importance in the prevention of various conditions. As the century rolled on, concerns of ‘undernutrition’ turned to worries of ‘overnutrition’, especially in the Western world, where the importance of consuming a diet that reduced the risk of chronic heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis and diabetes was finally recognised. As scientists began to identify active components from plants and animals that could reduce the risk of these conditions, technological advances permitted the development of a broad range of what we now call ‘functional foods’. 

Some of these products have been around for many years – as well as the milk and enriched grain products mentioned above, probiotic yoghurts and cholesterol-lowering spreads spring quickly to mind. Other much more recent products that typify the global trend for functional foods include Nestlé’s new powdered milk beverage that claims to support mobility in older adults. The new beverage, launched in China at the end of 2020 under the Yiyang Active brand, contains ingredients that support bone health, muscle strength and joint functionality – taking advantage of the functional food trend, alongside increasing global consumer concerns about healthy aging. 

Such is the current popularity of ‘functional ingredients’ that Firmenich has crowned ginger and yuzu as 2021’s Flavours of the Year. In a statement to the press, the Swiss flavour house said that the two ingredients are “symbolic of the consumer’s desire for a sense of normalcy and healing”. Following an unprecedented year of uncertainty, “they represent the world’s collective desire for strength and renewed hope.”  

" Functional foods deliver additonal or enhanced health benefits over and above the basic nutrition values "



According to market intelligence company Grand View Research, the value of the global functional foods market was estimated to be about $161.5 billion (US dollars) in 2018. Growing at an average rate of 8% each year, that figure is expected to reach $275.8 billion by 2025. Widely viewed as one of the biggest food ingredients trends for 2021, food and drink ingredients that can provide health benefits alongside great taste are growing in popularity across the globe. It aligns with a huge trend for ‘permissive indulgence’, which I like to think means that we can be both naughty and nice!

Unsurprisingly, the promise of the market is being reflected in a surge of innovation and investment in the area. Most recently, in January this year, Future Food-Tech launched an Innovation Challenge in partnership with Kellogg Company and Unilever to scale up global start-ups. These giants of the food industry are targeting solutions that include new plant fibres, microbiome ingredients and probiotics – in other words, there is a strong focus on functional foods. Meanwhile, also in January, another industry giant – PepsiCo – announced the ten global finalists joining its own annual Greenhouse Accelerator. This year’s finalists include a host of start-ups creating market-ready health and wellness products, including encapsulated functional foods, metabolically personalized dietary advice and a hangover-alleviating probiotic drink. Taken together, these initiatives demonstrate the industry’s fascination with functional foods, and a very clear eagerness from even the biggest players to make sure they not left out of the movement.


" Functional foods are widely viewed
as one of the biggest ingredients trends
for 2021"

Expansion of the functional foods market is being driven by increasing demand for nutritional and fortifying food additives, as well as growing consumer awareness regarding cardiovascular and digestive health. Added to these influences, the past year has also seen heightened demand for immunity boosting supplements during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, some experts go so far as to describe COVID-19 as a “key market contributor” in the rise of functional foods. Over the past year, consumer appetite for health-fortifying offerings have risen significantly, and this has been attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As with many trends – home working, digitalization, e-commerce, domestic sourcing – it is generally agreed that COVID-19 has accelerated the trend rather than created it. The market for functional foods had already been growing steadily for several years, thanks to consumer demands for a healthier diet and added value food products. However, what we appear to be seeing now is a very rapid shift in consumer behaviour, which is placing a growing focus on the types of benefits that functional foods can provide. 

Looking ahead for 2021, functional ingredients supplier FrieslandCampina Ingredients published their predictions for the future of performance and active nutrition at the start of the year. Based on extensive research performed in 2020, the company believes that consumers are now, more than ever, heavily focussed on health and wellness, and that it will be essential for brands to keep in tune with these concerns in 2021 and beyond. 

“As the challenges of COVID-19 continue to influence global behaviours, the nutrition industry is bearing witness to significantly increased levels of consumer interest in health consciousness, overall well-being and the role of nutrition in supporting individual needs,” said the company in a statement to the press. “FrieslandCampina Ingredients predicts a substantial growth opportunity for health-related food and beverage products that take into consideration key consumer needs such as clean and simple labels, convenience, hydration, protein fortification, gut health, brain health and immunity.”  


It is said that some people live to eat, while others eat to live. Now, it seems we might have a third category – those who eat for therapy. However, it is important to remember, as highlighted by the American Council on Science and Health in their position paper on the subject, that functional foods are not a magic bullet or a panacea for poor health habits.  

“There are not good and bad foods, only good and bad dietary patterns,” say the authors of the position paper. Furthermore, “Diet is only one aspect of a comprehensive lifestyle approach to good health, which should include regular exercise, tobacco avoidance, stress reduction, maintenance of healthy body weight and other positive health practices.” 

They are of course correct. Obviously, much as I might wish it to be true, I cannot live off a diet dominated by chocolate and red wine, supplemented by a probiotic yoghurt each morning to ensure my health is maintained.  

However, if we live generally healthy lives, functional foods can be part of an effective strategy to maximize health and reduce disease risk. The potential benefits of functional food are tremendous, both on an individual scale and at the public health level. I am genuinely excited by the industry’s interest and investment in these products, and I look forward to seeing what hits my newsfeed – and my supermarket shelves – later this year. 


Image by Monouso from Pixabay