In recent years, interest in a healthy and nutritious diet has grown significantly. Consumers are increasingly attentive, seeking foods that go beyond basic nutrition to offer specific health benefits. This has led to a greater demand for healthy and functional foods. However, a crucial factor in choosing these products is the trust consumers place in health claims made by producers. But how much do consumers really trust the "better-for-you" marketing?

Overview of healthy and functional foods

Healthy foods are those that offer significant nutritional benefits, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins (for example, the Mediterranean diet is known for its beneficial effects and for preventing various diseases). In consumer perception, healthy foods are also those based on natural ingredients, free from artificial additives or preservatives. As we will see, various factors contribute to forming a perception of "healthy food" for the end consumer, including packaging, labeling, and marketing messages.

Functional foods, on the other hand, are products that contain additional elements designed to improve health, such as probiotics for gut health or antioxidants to combat oxidative stress. A common example is kefir, rich in probiotics, or purple potatoes, which contain higher amounts of anthocyanins with antioxidant functions. Various ingredients and products can be used to enrich foods with the goal of providing specific functions (e.g., antioxidant, detoxifying, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antihypertensive, and cholesterol-lowering) based on scientific evidence that confirms their positive health effects.

Healthy and functional foods are often referred to as "better-for-you", indicating that producers and marketers frequently use persuasive messages to highlight their benefits. This appeals to consumers with a general interest in consuming healthy products as well as those with specific health needs or concerns, for whom certain functional foods can provide benefits.

The role of consumer trust

Consumer trust is crucial for the success of any brand, especially in the food sector. A recent study by the EIT Food Consumer Observatory found that, in general, only 46% of consumers trust food producers, and only 44% believe the foods they consume are healthy.

This decline in trust is a worrying signal for the food industry, as 27% of consumers report not trusting producers.

This figure is particularly significant for those producing or marketing "better-for-you" foods (i.e., healthy or functional foods), where transparency and honesty in health claims are critical.

The entire food supply chain faces the challenge of winning over the market and building trust through substantive and communicative elements that yield positive commercial outcomes.

The trend towards "clean label" products, which promotes the use of a few easily recognizable ingredients, is gaining popularity. Consumers read labels carefully and are often skeptical of products with long or complex ingredient lists. This movement reflects a growing demand for transparency and authenticity. Additionally, increasing regulation in the sector requires health claims to be supported by concrete facts and scientific evidence, which can help strengthen trust.

Current statistics and trends

The market for healthy and functional foods is rapidly growing, driven by increasing consumer interest in products that promote health and well-being. Here are some recent statistics showcasing the trends and dynamics of this sector:

  • Market growth: the global functional food and beverage market is valued at approximately $333.34 billion in 2023 and is projected to reach $364.18 billion by 2024, with a projected growth to $793.60 billion by 2032, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.23%, according to research published by Fortune Business Insights.

  • Transparency preferences: the demand for "clean label" products continues to grow. According to Innova Market Insights, more than one in four consumers consider labels with few and simple ingredients as an indicator of health, with 41% of consumers already familiar with the concept of a "clean and transparent label". Additionally, 78% of consumers find the concept of "clean labels" appealing when provided with a clear definition of what this type of label means. Therefore, the trend toward simplification and transparency is a significant one for the future.

  • Functional and psychophysical benefits: ingredients that enhance physical and mental health (such as turmeric) are becoming increasingly popular. In the U.S. market, for example, according to the 2023 IFIC Food & Health Survey, 74% of Americans believe that the food and beverages they consume have a significant or moderate impact on their overall mental and emotional well-being. Additionally, 61% state that the desire to maintain mental and emotional well-being significantly or moderately influences their food and beverage choices. There is also growing interest in functional benefits integrated into everyday consumer products: for example, 23% of consumers seeking prebiotics commonly find them in so-called "healthy beverages" for regular consumption.

  • Product innovations: major companies like Danone, Mars, and Nestlé are investing significantly in research and innovation to develop new functional products. However, small producers also have a significant opportunity to market healthy and functional foods, particularly artisanal producers and those who invest in the authenticity and genuineness of their products.

What influences consumer perception?

Several factors play a crucial role in consumers' perception of a product's healthiness. Here are the main factors based on recent studies and research:

  1. Labeling and health claims: labels highlighting specific health benefits, such as "low fat", "no added sugars", or "high in fiber", strongly influence consumer perception. Health claims on labels, such as those related to vitamin or antioxidant content, can increase the product's credibility​​ (as noted in the aforementioned research by Fortune Business Insights).

  2. Natural ingredients and "clean labels": the use of natural ingredients and the adoption of clean labels are important factors. Consumers tend to perceive products with simple and easily recognizable ingredients, free from artificial additives or preservatives, as healthier​​.

  3. Transparency and traceability: transparency regarding the origin of ingredients and production processes enhances trust and positive perception regarding health effects. Detailed information on sustainable sourcing and ethical production practices can improve the overall perception of the product​.

  4. Certifications and quality marks: certifications such as "organic", "non-GMO", and "fair trade" help reassure consumers about the product's quality and healthiness. The presence of these marks contributes positively to the perception of the product as healthy​, according to the 2023 IFIC Food & Health Survey.

  5. Packaging and product design: the design of the packaging can influence the perception of healthiness. Packaging that uses light or natural colors, images of fresh ingredients, and a clean, simple design tends to be associated with healthier products​.

  6. Provenance and seasonality: products that emphasize local origin and the use of seasonal ingredients are perceived as fresher and healthier. Consumers often associate these products with sustainable agricultural practices and a lower environmental impact​.

  7. Consumer testimonials and reviews: positive reviews and testimonials from other consumers can significantly influence the perception of a product as healthy. Detailed reviews that mention health benefits and ingredient quality are particularly effective​​.

Marketing strategies

As revealed by recent market data and specific research on consumer behavior, companies need to adopt transparent and honest marketing strategies to earn and maintain consumer trust.

Packaging and front-of-pack labeling are crucial tools for providing clear and immediate information to consumers. In many countries, labeling rules and obligations aim to help consumers make healthier choices by providing essential nutritional information in a visible and easily understandable manner​. Health claims on packaging should always be supported by evidence and scientific studies, which can then be featured on other communication channels (such as the company's website, social media, and digital advertising campaigns) to support the positive perception of the products. Additional material available online could be linked to the label with a reference to the producer's website or a QR code leading to specific content about the health benefits.

Additional Certifications like B Corp can also help maintain consumer trust. These certifications attest to the company's commitment to sustainable and responsible practices. B Corp certification, for example, assesses companies based on their social and environmental performance. Other relevant certifications include organic, non-GMO, and fair trade products, which reassure consumers about the integrity of the products. If present, these additional elements can be incorporated into the communication strategy of food and beverage producers, distributors, and retailers.

Multichannel communication

For producers and distributors, it is essential to use a multichannel communication strategy to effectively reach and inform consumers. This includes the use of social media, corporate blogs, newsletters, and digital advertising campaigns (both B2C, targeting end consumers, and B2B, targeting retailers or foodservice businesses).

Each channel should be used to emphasize the elements that consumers consider most important for making informed choices, such as ingredient transparency, health benefits, and commitment to sustainability.

Adopting a combination of digital marketing strategies can help companies improve their online presence, attract and engage customers in both B2B and B2C sectors. The key is to understand your target audience and tailor communication strategies to meet their needs and expectations.

Transparency and storytelling

Companies should adopt a transparent storytelling approach, sharing not only product information but also details about the production chain, agricultural practices, and sustainability initiatives. Telling the story of the product and the company can strengthen the bond with consumers, increasing their trust and loyalty. For example, showcasing how ingredients are selected, the ethical practices adopted, and the scientifically proven benefits of the products can enhance the company's credibility.

Partnership and collaborations

Collaborating with scientific institutions, universities, and recognized organizations can increase the credibility of health and wellness claims. These partnerships can also help innovate and continuously improve products, meeting consumer needs and expectations.

Challenges of the near future

As we have seen, the food sector faces significant challenges in earning consumer trust, a crucial component for the success of all companies involved in the supply chain. The growing consumer awareness regarding health and sustainability has led to an unprecedented demand for transparency. Companies must address the distrust stemming from past food scandals and the perception of unethical business practices. To overcome these challenges, it is essential to adopt transparent labeling practices and targeted communication campaigns based on objective and independently verifiable elements.

Furthermore, effective communication through online and traditional channels is essential to educate consumers about the benefits of the products. Integrating marketing strategies that emphasize sustainability, the origin of ingredients, and the company's ethical commitment can contribute to generating a positive brand image. Companies that manage to combine innovation, transparency, and authenticity will have more leverage to capture new market shares.

In summary, food companies must adopt an integrated approach that combines product improvement, multichannel communication, and storytelling to maintain high interest in their target market. This approach not only enhances credibility, especially for products with clear health benefits, but also promotes a long-term trust relationship with business clients (retailers, distributors, foodservice) as well as end consumers.

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