A. Elizabeth Sloan

From ergothioneine in mushrooms to catechins in tea, get ready for a new generation of phytochemicals whose timing is right on target.

The 2007 USA HealthFocus Trend Report found that 79% of grocery shoppers believe that some foods contain active components that can help with current health problems; 76% think these substances can reduce the risk of disease and improve long-term health; 88% feel it is important to eat foods that are naturally rich sources of nutrients; and 56% feel that foods can also be used to reduce their use of drugs and other medical therapies.

And with 36% of shoppers trying to reduce the risk of developing a health condition, 30% following a doctor’s advice, and 25% managing/treating a specific health condition on their own, according to the Food Marketing Institute’s 2006 Shopping for Health, phytochemicals are a natural choice for marketers.

Shoppers most associate phytochemicals with antioxidants and are well aware of antioxidants’ health benefits. HealthFocus found that 63% are aware of the connection between antioxidants and cancer prevention, second only to awareness levels for vitamins and minerals (69%). Nearly half (47%) of shoppers associate antioxidants with improved immunity, 44% heart health, 35% removing free radicals, 28% improved memory, 27% eye health, 26% joint health, 26% clearer skin, and 21% fewer wrinkles. One-quarter of shoppers are looking for more antioxidant-rich foods.

HealthFocus also found that 73% of shoppers cite broccoli as a good/excellent source of antioxidants, 79% blueberries, 60% green tea, 64% tomatoes, 60% orange juice, 53% tropical fruits/red wine, and 50% pomegranates, and 50% believe that cocoa/dark chocolate is an excellent source of antioxidants and may help reduce the risk of disease.

But as the horsepower race for antioxidant superfoods continues, savvy marketers are differentiating themselves by focusing on other classes of phytochemicals. For example, Mars Botanical, a new division of Mars, Inc., has focused on cocoa flavanols. More than 15 years of research and 100 studies suggest that the vascular/circulatory effects of cocoa flavanols—independent of an antioxidant function—may have positive effects on cognitive performance and brain function and reduce the tendency to form clots associated with heart attacks and strokes. Flavanol-based treatments for diabetes and stroke are other possibilities.

Although consumers are most likely to eat foods that have a general health or heart-health benefit, they would be most interested in consuming foods that improve mental performance, followed by those that improve immunity, prevent specific diseases, boost satiety, improve digestion health, and increase physical energy, according to the International Life Sciences Institute’s 2007 Food & Health Survey.

The Sloan Trends TrendSense Model projects that polyphenols and flavonoids will gain mass-market status in 2007, while anthocyanins are perfectly positioned to grab the attention of health/natural channel shoppers or those extremely concerned about health and nutrition. The model also found that oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) value is not a strong marketing opportunity in any channel at this time.

Savvy marketers will be most successful if they focus on the end health benefits associated with these new classes of phytochemicals and specific foods rather than try to promote specific chemical names. For example, although HealthFocus reports that 58% of shoppers link tomatoes to cancer prevention, only 34% of consumers in Multi-sponsor Survey’s 2006 Gallup Study of Nutrient Knowledge & Consumption have heard of lycopene; 27% were aware of lutein, 18% bioflavonoids, 15% carotenoids, 13% flavonols, 13% red wine extract/resveratrol, and 4% polyphenols.

While phytochemicals have gained popularity in the produce section, perhaps their greatest opportunity is in processed food categories in need of a healthy aura, such as bakery and snacks. For example, one-third of the United States population is now age 55 or older. Because this group is the most concerned about health and the heaviest dessert consumers, bakers could benefit from formulating with tart cherries. Available year-round in dried, frozen, and juiced forms, they not only are a nutrient-rich antioxidant powerhouse but also have been shown to possess anti-inflammatory activity specific to arthritis and gout and can lower cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin, and fasting glucose levels.

Similarly, adding more phytochemical-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into frozen meals by adding a side, dessert, or fruit sauce is an easy way to boost their health image.

by A. Elizabeth Sloan,
Contributing Editor 
President, Sloan Trends, Inc., Escondido, Calif.