It is not surprising that a global health pandemic that brought the world to a standstill has led people to prioritise their own health. However, each global region and consumer demographic has its own specific priorities and demands, creating an altered landscape that can be challenging for manufacturers to navigate.
This year, ingredient supplier Kerry surveyed 13,000 people across 16 countries to provide manufacturers with insights into how COVID-19 has altered purchasing behaviour. It found that 28% of European consumers are now buying more dietary supplements while 26% are buying more fortified or functional food and beverages since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Immune and digestive health
Unsurprisingly, immune health is the most important benefit people are looking for, drawing 61% of Europeans to purchase a healthy lifestyle product – 15% more than the second most important health benefit.
“[This] really speaks to the increased need for immune health products as a result of the pandemic. Immune health was the top health benefit sought by consumers in each of the 16 countries surveyed globally,” said Dr Niamh Hunt, Assistant Global Marketing Manager, ProActive Health at Kerry.
Another important shift revealed by Kerry’s research is the increased importance now placed on digestive well-being. Forty-three percent of Europeans now state this is their most important health benefit, moving from fifth place in 2019 to third place in 2021. Digestive health has overtaken heart health and improved energy as the most important reason for buying a healthy lifestyle product.
“This is likely due to consumers associating a healthy gut with their overall health and wellness as they look for holistic methods to target their health. In particular, the link between the gut and our immune system with 70% of our immune cells residing in our gut,” Hunt explained. “And consumers are becoming increasingly more educated about this link between their gut and immune health and are looking for products that target their gut as a way to keep their immune system functioning at its best. The link between gut and mental health and cognitive health is another factor here, as we know this has been an area consumers have been actively looking to address.”
Probiotics, omega-3 and plant-based
So, which functional ingredients are people looking for to bring these health benefits?
Probiotics are a popular choice as they can provide digestive and immune health benefits, tapping into both trends. Consumers are also increasingly aware of probiotics; according to Kerry’s global survey, nearly half (47%) of consumers worldwide are aware of probiotics or cultures – a 5% rise on 2019. Omega-3 is also well-known for providing immune health and cognitive benefits. Meanwhile, functional ingredients that can make a plant-based claim are popular.
As for which product categories are best-suited to immune-boosting and digestive health-promoting ingredients, Kerry’s market researchers found that the eating occasion may be just as important.
“The survey shows that foods and beverages commonly consumed at breakfast time are the most closely associated with immune and digestive health, with two thirds of consumers wanting to get these benefits during the breakfast occasion,” said Hunt.
This means that functional ingredients are well-suited to a myriad of products such as fruit and vegetable juices, yoghurt, breakfast cereal and granola. This can vary depending on the region, however, with breakfast cereal and granola a top choice in North America, Latin America and Europe but less so in Asia where hot drinks and sweet snacks come out top for digestive benefits.
Whatever the ingredient, however, manufacturers should choose one that is backed by robust scientific research, according to Kerry’s findings.
“The most important takeaway here is the emphasis on science-backed ingredients supported by high-quality research will be most successful with consumers,” added Hunt.
Manufacturers should be aware that rising consumer demand for healthy functional ingredients is occurring simultaneously with a rise in mistrust of the health claims many brands are making. Kerry’s in-house market researchers asked consumers what would make them more likely to buy a healthy lifestyle product. They found that science-backed products and simplifying steps for consumers to do their own research are key to building trust – even more so than simply adding on-pack health claims.
Thirty-eight percent of Europeans said they want to be able to do their own research on ingredient and product benefits while just under one-third (32%) want to see the scientific data behind the claimed health benefits. One-third (33%) want to see the benefits clearly and transparently explained on the product packaging.
Co-branded ingredients bring credibility
In addition to having clinical evidence that supports an ingredient’s efficacy, using a branded ingredient can be an important tool to build upon consumer trust.
“Co-branding with a branded ingredient on product packaging provides a clear reference point to the fact that this is a product made with an ingredient that consumers know and can trust and allows consumers to learn more about the ingredient, how it works, and the research supporting it,” said Hunt.