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Foods to preserve health now, treat conditions later

July 7, 2012 06:02

Rising population of aging health-conscious consumers is driving demand for food products.

Elderly couple eating fruit [illustrative]

Elderly couple eating fruit 370. (photo credit:Thinkstock/Imagebank)

LAS VEGAS – The rising population of aging health-conscious consumers is driving demand for food products that support good health now, as well as medicinal treatment for conditions that arise in later years, according to a panel discussion at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) 2012 Annual Meeting & Food Expo.

There are 78 million baby boomers, defined by the US Census Bureau as those born from Jan. 1, 1946, to Dec. 31, 1964 in the United States. They began reaching the retirement age of 65 last year, and 10,000 more will reach that milestone every day for the next 18 years.

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Lu Ann Williams, head of research for Innova Market Insights, presented research that showed most of these older consumers have at least one chronic condition, with the most prevalent being arthritis (50 percent), followed by hypertension (34 percent), heart disease (32 percent), cancer (23 percent) and diabetes (19 percent). Many of these same consumers report that concerns about losing health insurance is pushing them to control their current condition–or prevent future conditions–through fortified foods or dietary supplements.

Williams predicts the next wave of products will be geared toward consumers worried about losing muscle mass as they age. Humans lose up to 37 percent of muscle tissue as they age, and their body fat increases by 114 percent, she said, making foods with high protein content of great interest to consumers. Consumers–even those as young as their 20s–also are concerned about maintaining mental alertness as they age, fueling interest in products and supplements containing omega-3s and B vitamins.

“Product launches with health claims are on the rise,” Williams said. “It’s the hottest story in town.”

Anthony T. Pavel, a partner in the food and drug law practice of K&L Gates, said the proliferation of wellness products means both consumers and food manufacturers should be aware of strict rules established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for promoting the health benefits of foods. They are particularly strict for foods marketed as medical foods, such as beverages meant to provide supplemental nutrition for undernourished senior citizens or other populations.

“Medical foods are the toughest regulatory category. It is hard to build justification for them, and it must be done methodically and with good data,” Pavel said. “The FDA considers this a very narrow category.”

The key difference between marketing for wellness and marketing for medicine is that wellness foods’ primary purpose must be as a food, not as a medical treatment, Pavel said. Any claims regarding health benefits must focus on maintaining the healthy structure/function of the body, not treating it for a disease. For example, a product could say it “promotes health vision” but not “restores healthy vision.”

Despite the regulations, Pavel said food manufacturers should not be discouraged from creating new products that have wellness benefits or even the stricter medicinal benefits, given the expected high demand for them now and in the future.

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