With consumers eating so much healthier these days, the use of functional ingredients to boost health and wellness attributes in prepared foods is an option many commissaries are turning to as they begin to reevaluate their ingredients lists for the fourth quarter and coming year.

And not without reason — using extracts, compounds and nutritional additives in your mixes, sauces and other products can quickly and easily give your label reason to include phrases like high-protein, sugar-free, full of antioxidants, gluten-free, high-fiber and other modern buzzwords that many are seeking out in the grocery and c-store aisles.

Even simply substituting one fruit for another in a line of muffins or including a specific spice in a prepared meal can fortify its nutritional properties and lead to greater sales. For example, the spice turmeric has long been known to be an anti-inflammatory, and açai berries are known to be full of antioxidants. But the key to choosing which ingredient to use is all about knowing what your end consumer is concerned about for the future, and not just about what they want now.

A clear demonstration of this can be found in the line graph below, which was included in the International Food Council’s 2016 Food and Health Survey, released in May. Weight loss and management came out as the leading priority for consumers, followed by increased energy, cardiovascular health and healthy aging. That’s three out of the top four priorities that are forward-thinking by nature, and only one that concerns the here and now.

Further noted in that survey was the shift many manufacturers have made from focusing on that segment of consumers wanting to lose weight and more toward those who are looking for more nourishing food products. The difference may be slight, but the marketing can mean everything when it comes to the presentation and sales of your product. Instead of having a “diet” or “light” meal and considering it more healthy, shoppers these days want one that they know is more healthy, being free from certain ingredients and packed full of others they believe in and understand.

For example, according to the 2016 Shopping for Health Report released by the Food Marketing Institute and Rodale in November of last year, 76 percent of shoppers said that heart health in particular was very or somewhat important to them when shopping for food. Just after that came increased energy, with a 73 percent rating, followed by digestive health and maintaining or improving mind health, both at 70 percent.

All of these priorities can be fulfilled by the addition of functional ingredients to your foods, and would make them more appealing to this broad consumer base, 66 percent of whom agreed that the food they choose to eat is an important and affective factor to their overall health. Furthermore, almost as many — 62 percent — said that they see food as medicine for the body and base their purchasing decisions around as much.  

And while a number of functional ingredients are fruits, grains, legumes, or spices in and of themselves, many can be applied to a given food product without altering its flavor profile at all. Most ingredient suppliers now carry functional ingredients either within their pre-made mixes and flavorings or as options to include upon request when ordering from them, says Olga Jovnyruk, marketing executive of Embassy Flavours, LTD.

Embassy focuses its offerings on both ingredients and flavors, and is able to add functional ingredients to either while catering exclusively to bakery producers. By zeroing in on baked goods, Embassy has become a specialist in producing the ingredients and flavors necessary for that market. As Jovnyruk says, people love their morning muffins, but they’re even more likely to buy one brand over the other if it has additional nutritional properties like added protein, which can then turn a standard muffin into an energy-boosting one.

“Functional ingredients are used for food fortification,” she says, “including healthier options and additional benefits. So we can fortify our ingredients and flavorings as high-protein or high-fiber, for example, or include additional vitamins and minerals, though we haven’t dived too deeply into that. So if you wanted to make that high-protein muffin for example, we could provide the base and ingredients.”

Embassy has also developed new products in response to following market trends and tracking what their customers order, request and develop with them, Jovnyruk says. “The clean-label trend is huge right now; people are demanding shorter ingredient lists, and the end consumer is more aware of reading these labels and lists, so we develop the products to meet their needs.”

It’s that kind of R&D elbow grease that can turn a commissary’s offerings from good to great in a shopper’s eyes, though as mentioned, it’s not just about following potentially temporary trends like clean-label, but also considering the concerns of consumers in relation to their health and wellness for the future.

These longterm concerns were mentioned in Commissary Insider’s sister publication Food Business News, whose August issue reported that “memory loss and eye health are two of the most pressing future health concerns among today’s consumers, presenting an opportunity for companies competing in the nutrition and over-the-counter health space.”

This was further confirmed by Melanie Felgate, senior consumer insight analyst for market research firm Canadean. “As well as addressing current health needs, consumers are increasingly looking to the future, proactively seeking products that will reduce their risk of potential health problems ... manufacturers in the functional nutrition and healthcare spaces should focus on these key areas of innovation.”

The report even went on to say that those two apprehensions — of eye health and memory loss — ended up being higher on the list of consumer concerns than both diabetes and cholesterol, which are usually thought to be of greater concern to aging consumers, the most forward-thinking of them all.

Selecting specific, targeted functional ingredients that can ease these future worries and then displaying their benefits on your label can quickly and easily give your offerings an edge over the competition, and can introduce them to the booming health and wellness market, which shows no sign of waning anytime soon.

In the end, whether you incorporate functional ingredients through mixes and specific additives like those offered by companies like Embassy or through the inclusion of specific fruits, legumes, grains and spices like turmeric or acai berries, the addition of functional ingredients to your ingredients list is a surefire way to draw even more positive attention to your products.

Want to know how functional ingredients can boost sales for individual supermarket departments? Turn to our feature on foodservice bundling on Page 12 of instore.