Why do consumers choose functional foods?

Functional foods are foods with additional positive health effects. Do consumers really focus on these advantages when deciding which product to buy, and consequently do they prefer functional foods as alternatives to conventional foods? What reasons do they give for their choices? 

Researchers Nina Urala and her colleagues from VTT Biotechnology in Espoo, Finland, confronted consumers with functional and conventional products from six categories: yoghurt, spread, juice, carbonated soft drinks, sweets, and ice cream. The researchers asked the subjects to designate their product preferences in each category. The consumers were then interviewed in depth concerning the reasons for their decisions.

Functional foods were preferred to conventional products in 51% of all decisions. Highest rates of functional foods preference occurred in the categories of carbonated soft drinks (ca. 80 %), juice (60 %), and sweets (57%). Functional food alternatives had their lowest results when pitted against a butter-fat mixture, ice cream made with cream, and a fat-free yoghurt.

Functional foods were perceived as healthier than the conventional foods in the categories of soft drinks (nutritionally fortified drinks), spreads (cholesterol-lowering spreads) and sweets (xylitol-sweetened sweets). In the categories of juices (nutritionally fortified drink) and yoghurts (probiotic yoghurts), functional alternatives were perceived as being equal to or healthier than the conventional foods. Consumers gave the same reasons for choosing to buy functional foods as they gave for buying conventional foods. Taste and convenience were sighted as the two most important determining factors.

With the exception of ice cream, the relative healthiness of a product was another important factor in almost all product categories. In general, this applied to both functional and conventional food products.

Health is a complex subject. It can relate to general well being on the one hand and to disease prevention on the other. Its relative importance to the consumer can depend on the product category and on the consumer's personal preferences and desires.

Consumers show no general preference towards functional foods. If somebody prefers the functional product in one category, this does not tell anything about his preferences with regard to another product category.

"Respondents did not see functional foods as one homogenous group within the various product categories" says Nina Urala. "Instead, they perceive functional products primarily as members of the particular product category: yoghurt, spread, soft drinks, etc."


VTT Biotechnology, Consumer and Sensory Science

Espoo, Finland

Nina Urala

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