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Is the Online Shopping Experience for Functional Foods Functional?

The consumption of functional foods has grown significantly in recent years, particularly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Understanding functional foods, and whether the online shopping experience enables the consumer to purchase functional foods, is crucial for the success of omnichannel brands and retailers.

What are functional foods?

A functional food is a food that has been modified to provide health or wellbeing benefits that go beyond its nutrient contents. Despite their esoteric sounding name, functional foods are not always fancy or expensive. Rather, they include common items such as oatmeal (because oatmeal helps to reduce cholesterol). They also include certain “vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds, nuts, and foods fortified with probiotics, vitamins, minerals, or fibers.”

In 2020 the global functional food market reached $258.8 billion and research predicts that this market will grow to $529.66 billion by 2028. This market growth is accompanied by general increases in consumer demand for products that support gut health along with mental and emotional wellbeing.

What is the sector of functional foods known as probiotics?

Probiotics are living microorganisms that are beneficial to the health of their host. They include certain types of bacteria residing in fermented food (including certain cultured dairy products and fermented milks). Studies have shown that probiotic bacteria can aid in preventing a variety of bacterial and viral infections.

The benefits are believed to come in a variety of forms. In the normal functioning of the immune system, indigenous bacteria afford protection to the host’s immune system by acting as a barrier to the spread of harmful bacteria. That barrier can be weakened as a result of disease or the administration of antibiotics, resulting in harmful bacteria having access to the gut of the host. However, probiotics containing live beneficial bacteria can help strengthen the barrier and disrupt colonization of the pathogenic bacteria.

Since the barrier effect is only temporary, effective maintenance requires repeated consumption of the probiotics. Not only do probiotic bacteria help create the barrier, but their metabolic products (such as lactic acid and bacteriocins) reputedly prevent the growth of the harmful bacteria. Moreover, evidence exists that the probiotic bacteria helps to improve the gut’s immune response to the harmful bacteria.

Why is the consumption of probiotics rising during COVID-19?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic caused a great deal of emphasis to be placed on the health of people’s immune systems, probiotics have become an area of major focus and consumer demand for them has soared.

Probiotics appear not only to be useful in thwarting the effects of COVID-19, but also offer numerous other reputed health benefits, including “improved intestinal health, ameliorated lactose intolerance, enhanced immune response, reduced serum cholesterol, cancer prevention, and reduced risk of various other diseases.” Given the increased attention of consumers on maintaining the integrity of the body’s immune system and the critical role that can be played by probiotics in doing that, it is not surprising that they are rapidly gaining popularity as a functional food. 

What are dietary sources of probiotics?

Although probiotics can be purchased as a supplement in pill form, there are more cost-efficient and simple ways to implement probiotic-rich foods into your diet. Adding yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso, kombucha, or pickles to your diet are easy ways to boost probiotic consumption.  

How can you identify functional foods while grocery shopping?

Although the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulates functional foods and related product claims, what constitutes a “functional food” is a gray area because that term is not legally defined and is therefore subject to potential manipulation by brands and to varying interpretations.

As discussed above, numerous different kinds of foods are considered to be of the functional variety. In many instances, consumers can find hints from the packaging or ingredients list that can help them determine if a product is a functional food even where the term “functional food” or “probiotic” is not explicitly used. For example, since many probiotics are created from fermentation, consumers can get a good sense if a product is a probiotic if the packaging or ingredients list reference terms like “fermented,” “live cultures,” “live bacterial cultures,” “active cultures,” or “active bacterial cultures.” 

Yogurt, for example, is a product in which such terminology is commonly used. However, the consumer would need to understand that while these terms help to call out products that may be probiotics, they don’t create absolute certainty because not every live culture is a probiotic-type strain.

Therefore, in the absence of an explicit statement on the packaging or ingredient list making clear that the product contains probiotics, the best the consumer ordinarily can do is to make an educated guess. However, this information gap can be bridged with rich product data to enable consumers to specifically search the digital shelf for probiotics.

One way for consumers to help identify products that are functional foods is to look for specific types of ingredients that are commonly found in them. For example, this muffin product is a functional food, but what is it that puts it in this category? 

The first ingredient listed is inulin powder, which is a common ingredient contained in functional foods. Inulin is a prebiotic that boasts many potential health benefits including improving digestive health, aiding in weight loss, controlling diabetes, and improving the absorption of minerals. These possible health benefits make this a core ingredient in many functional foods and is definitely an ingredient to look out for when seeking out these types of foods. In addition to inulin, there are other fibers to keep an eye out for when looking to purchase a functional food, as they have been found to provide a variety of health benefits. These include isomaltooligosaccharides (IMO), tapioca fiber, and chicory root fiber. Looking on ingredient lists for fibers such as these can help consumers identify whether the product that they are considering is a functional food.

There also are many front-of-package (FOP) claims that you can look for when seeking out a functional food. Any product that places a health benefit claim beyond basic nutrition on its packaging is a likely candidate to be considered as a functional food. For example, this product boasts that it is good for digestion and contains probiotics and prebiotics which calls attention to the fact that it may be a functional food.

Another example is a food that claims to lower cholesterol such as this drink by Benecol.

How do you search for functional foods when online grocery shopping?

If you are looking for products that include probiotics, the simplest way to find these when online grocery shopping, unsurprisingly, is typing in “probiotics.” When this is done on instacart.com at the Fairway online grocery store, many relevant products appear, including Forager Project Probiotic Cashewmilk Yogurt, Chobani Probiotic Drink, Activia Probiotic Yogurt, Goodbelly Probiotic Juice Drink, and KIND Breakfast Probiotics bars (just to name a few). However, aside from the “probiotics” search term, a brief review of the websites of some of the largest online grocers, such as FreshDirect, Walmart, and Whole Foods (Amazon), reveals that health-related ingredients and product claims are not generally searchable by consumers. 

Although consumers theoretically can scroll through a grocer’s website in an attempt to find health-related ingredients, as well as product claims contained on FOP, such a process is time-consuming, highly inefficient, and unrealistic. Since many consumers are eager to purchase functional food products based upon perceived health benefits, online retailers and their partner brands should improve discoverability of health-related ingredients and product claims of functional foods.

As the functional foods category becomes an ever-larger part of the online shopping experience, it is important that consumers be given the tools to make informed decisions about what foods are functional, whether they offer health benefits that are of concern to them, and how to search for them.


About The Author

Kaci Emrich (she/her) is a rising junior at the University of St. Andrews who is a candidate for a BSc joint degree in Economics and Psychology (Hons). She has a strong passion for nutrition and earned a Nutrition and Healthy Living Certificate through eCornell in July of 2020. 

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