Americans have made health a priority in this age of COVID-19, but many face economic constraints that require a reexamination of their food choices, said Shelley Balanko, senior vice president and head of business development for The Hartman Group, Wednesday, during the Specialty Food Live! session, Functionality and Food Culture Trends in the Era of COVID-19.
“The economic strain that’s a ripple effect from the pandemic might upend some well-established routines and it will accelerate conscientiousness around waste and relevance as consumers can’t afford to buy products that aren’t useful and going to be consumed fully,” she said.
Boding well for specialty food makers is the fact that the pandemic has shone a spotlight on food as medicine, with functional food and beverages that deliver immunity and mental well-being benefits being most relevant, Balanko said.
“Consumers have focused on immunity, such as the link between healthy digestion and reducing overall systemic inflammation in the body,” she said. “They are thinking more about high-quality sleep and effective stress-management techniques.”
Many have been trying to eat and drink more immune-supporting ingredients such as vitamin C in citrus, green tea, garlic, turmeric, and ginger. More experimental and trend-forward consumers are trying things like prebiotic fiber from resistant starches, adaptogens, and medicinal mushrooms, Balanko said.
Consumers are also seeking sensory experiences in their functional foods. “Absolutely consumers expect that they work and they need to taste great, but they also need to deliver on a wonderful sensory experience In terms of taste and texture and they need to meet consumers’ definitions of food quality and attributes that ladder up to freshness, health and wellness, culinary distinction, and transparency or sustainability,” she said.
Ease of use is also key as consumers want functional food solutions that make healthy living easier. Functional food makers should focus their efforts on routinely consumed healthy categories such as yogurt, granola/energy bars, cereals, juices, teas, and bottled water, versus more indulgent categories.
“Food and beverage formats are advantaged by their connection to categories and occasions with which consumers are already familiar and have to participate in,” said Balanko. “We have to eat and drink to survive so we can do so with an eye toward health and wellness more easily.”