Foods targeting specific health conditions face shifting trends

Keith Nunes 2019

Kansas City
It has been a longstanding goal of many food and beverage product developers to formulate products that deliver benefits beyond basic nutrition. Whole product categories have emerged focused on improving digestive health and cognitive function, alleviating joint pain and, most recently, improving immune system function, to name a few. Yet the depth of consumer interest in such products appears to be questionable.

Part of the problem with understanding how consumers feel about products that target specific health issues is very often what they perceive does not align with reality. For example, when asked to self-report their health status, 86% of respondents said their health was “good,” “very good,” or “excellent,” according to the 2022 International Food Information Council’s Food and Health Survey. There was no significant change between the results from the 2021 Food and Health Survey.

Yet data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the overall health of many consumers in America is declining. From 2000 to 2020, the prevalence of adult obesity in the US increased from 30.5% to 41.9%. During the same period the prevalence of “severe obesity” increased from 4.7% to 9.2%.

This is not to imply people who are obese cannot lead healthy lives, but adults with obesity are at increased risk for many other serious health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and poorer mental health, according to the CDC. This risk is borne out in CDC data estimating annual medical costs for adults who are obese average $1,861 above medical costs for people with a healthy weight.

Data issued in 2018 by the CDC showed 52% of adults had at least one chronic medical condition and 27% had multiple chronic conditions. For those who develop such chronic conditions as heart disease or type 2 diabetes, such a diagnosis without a significant lifestyle adjustment can mean a lifetime of taking medication to control the condition.

Interestingly, some consumers do not consider this a negative, according to the IFIC Food and Health Survey. When asked “I would rather take a medication for a health condition than change my lifestyle,” 38% agreed, up from 16% in 2012.The gap widened for consumers between the ages of 18 to 34 and 35 to 49, with 49% of the 18- to 34-year-old consumers and 46% of those 35 to 49 saying they would rather take a medication over making lifestyle changes. In 2012, only 14% of consumers in both age groups opted for taking medications over making lifestyle changes.

These trends pose a challenge for companies striving to develop foods that may help alleviate a chronic health condition. During the RBC Capital Markets Consumer and Retail Conference in early June, Jonathan J. Nudi, group president of North America Retail for General Mills, Inc., disclosed that the company is developing a line of products intended to help people with diabetes control their glucose levels.

For the 37 million people in the US who have diabetes, such a development should be cause for celebration. But as recent trends show, some consumers lack the awareness that may be necessary for companies looking to successfully develop and market products aimed at tackling various health conditions. 

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