Filling the Nutrient and Knowledge Gap with Functional Foods

From beans to blueberry yogurt and breakfast cereals, many foods contain beneficial health promoting nutrients and food components. Functional foods are defined as foods that can provide benefits beyond basic nutrition. Whether in the news or the grocery aisle, the concept has reached the consumer, but has the exposure resulted in increased knowledge or understanding? The most recent iteration of the International Food Information Council’s Functional Foods Consumer Survey was designed to answer this question. The 2013 survey is the eighth in a series of quantitative studies focused on Americans’ awareness of and attitudes toward functional foods. This research continues to provide insights into consumer perceptions of the roles of foods and beverages in promoting health and wellness. In contrast to previous surveys which largely explored views on food and health benefit pairings, the latest round of research was designed to examine consumer perceptions related to 1) nutrient deficits; 2) the variety of food sources of functional nutrients (including inherent functional nutrients or functional nutrients added by fortification); 3) food processing; and 4) determinants of functional food consumption.

Among the many interesting insights that were gleaned from the 2013 IFIC Functional Foods Consumer Survey, a major point that stood out from the statistics was the discrepancy between consumers’ perceptions of the nutritional adequacy of their diets and actual nutrient intake.  Health professionals and educators are therefore challenged with finding a “functional” fix, using foods with benefits beyond basic nutrition to close the nutrient (and knowledge) gaps and help consumers find a place on their plate for functional foods.

Consumer Attitudes toward Nutrition

When it comes to their general nutrition knowledge, most consumers feel relatively confident. Over one-third of consumers state they are at least very knowledgeable about nutrition, while the vast majority (more than three-fourths) of consumers state they are at least somewhat knowledgeable about nutrition. Interestingly, younger (< 49 yrs. of age) consumers are more likely to consider themselves extremely knowledgeable about nutrition. Consumer awareness of and interest in functional foods remains high. Ninety percent of consumers agree that certain foods have health benefits beyond basic nutrition and are interested in learning more about these foods.

Despite consumers’ confidence in their nutrition knowledge, most still acknowledge that they believe they fall short of meeting “all or nearly all” of their nutrient needs. Even with vitamins and supplements, only one-third believe they are getting all the needed nutrients.  On the other hand, two-thirds of consumers believe they are getting at least “most” of the nutrients and food components they need from their diet (food and vitamins/supplements). This belief that they are meeting most of their needs may indicate why most consumers say they are not concerned about this fact. Only four in ten consumers are “at least somewhat concerned” that they may not be getting enough nutrients or healthful food components.

 

Nutrient Adequacy:  Perception vs. Reality

 

A comparison between the IFIC 2013 Functional Foods Survey findings on perceptions of diet adequacy (by specific nutrient) and NHANEs data (Figure 1) shows that many consumers’ perceptions are not consistent with the reality of their dietary intakes. For some nutrients, consumers perceive that their intakes are adequate when, in reality, Americans are not meeting the DRIs. For nutrients, such as vitamin D, potassium, and fiber, the discrepancy between perception and reality is quite stark. On the other hand, for nutrients such as vitamin C and calcium, consumers’ perceptions are right on point with the consumption data. The high percentage of consumers who are meeting their needs for B vitamins is a testament to the value of functional foods, especially fortified foods. Breads, rice and cereals, which are often fortified with B vitamins may be helping consumers meet their B vitamin needs, without the consumer realizing the added value.

*Data include food and supplement intake. Values listed are for entire U.S. Population (≥ 2 years of age)

Fulgoni VL 3rd, DR Keast, RL Bailey, and J Dwyer. Foods, fortificants, and supplements: Where do Americans get their nutrients? The Journal of Nutrition. 2011;141(10):1847-54.

* Clemens, R., S. Kranz, A. R. Mobley, T. A. Nicklas, M. P. Raimondi, J. C. Rodriguez, J. L. Slavin, and H. Warshaw. Filling America's Fiber Intake Gap: Summary of a Roundtable to Probe Realistic Solutions with a Focus on Grain-Based Foods. Journal of Nutrition. 2012;142(7):1390S-1401S.

Functional Foods: A Practical Pick for Health Promotion
Given that consumers may have misperceptions about their nutrient intake, additional education on the value of meeting nutrient needs may be beneficial. Communicating information on specific nutrient gaps most prevalent among Americans (such as vitamin D and potassium) can provide motivation to improve their diet and increase interest in functional foods. In addition, consumers should be made aware of the various types of foods that can help them reach their nutrient intake goals. As in previous years, nearly all consumers agree that certain foods have health benefits beyond basic nutrition and are interested in learning more.

This year’s research shows that the majority of consumers say they consume foods that naturally contain healthful nutrients/food components most times they eat. Consumers also seem to understand the beneficial role vitamins and supplements can play in promoting good health. More than two-thirds of consumers like the idea of getting health promoting nutrients and food components from vitamins or supplements.

In addition to naturally occurring functional foods and vitamins and supplements, health promoting components are often added to foods through fortification. The research indicates that many consumers see fortified foods as a valuable avenue for meeting nutrient needs. When asked about how worthwhile it is to consume fortified foods versus foods that are not fortified, a slight majority (53 percent) of consumers believe fortified foods are “most always” or “always more worthwhile”. Consumers who are “very concerned” about nutrient deficits are more likely to rate fortified foods as “most always” or “always” more worthwhile to eat than non-fortified foods.

Helping Americans Step Up to the Functional Plate

Previous iterations of the survey revealed that even though consumers have a positive perception of functional foods in general, reported consumption of various functional components for health benefits remained stagnant. This year’s study further explored perceived barriers to functional foods consumption to better understand communication strategies for behavior change. Out of 16 potential reasons for not consuming more of these foods, consumers selected 10, on average, indicating that they perceive a variety of challenges in this area. Specifically, price is the most common barrier, with over half identifying this as a major reason.  Other perceived barriers include skepticism of manufacturers’ motives for adding health components to products, preference for the purity of basic foods, and taste.

Health professionals can play an important role in promoting consumption of foods with benefits beyond basic nutrition by educating consumers on potential nutrient gaps in their diets. They can also communicate the importance of consumers meeting their nutrient needs as part of an overall balanced and nutritionally adequate diet. Health professionals can also help consumers identify the health-promoting nutrients in food and/or supplements and provide guidance on how to incorporate them into their regular diet. From whole foods to processed foods, there is a variety of foods that provide either inherent or fortified health-promoting nutrients. The IFIC Foundation Functional Foods Backgrounder lists the various health-promoting components and corresponding food sources along with tips on how to include them in your diet. This research will help health professionals understand how to meet their patients and clients where they are in terms of awareness, perceptions, and motivation. Further analysis of this data shows that consumers with a high receptivity to functional foods (who trust that functional foods will confer health benefits) are more likely to consume functional foods. Effective messages about functional foods must address the top barriers to functional food consumption and foster consumer belief in the health benefits that functional foods can confer. Understanding consumers’ perceptions of functional foods and their own nutritional status is key to bringing knowledge and behavior together on the functional foods plate.

 

The IFIC 2013 Functional Foods Consumer Survey was conducted with 1,005 U.S. adults ages 18 to 80 years. Respondents were randomly invited to participate in a 20-minute web-based survey based on gender, education, age, and ethnicity to allow the findings to be reflective of the US population. The final data set was weighted on these characteristics as well. Most questions were close-ended, where participants were prompted and asked to rate specific responses.