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Language is Key in Communicating the Potential Benefits of Marine-Derived Functional Foods and Ingredients

Functional food incorporates science into everyday eating with the suggestion of many health benefits for the consumer, making it the fastest growing segment in the food market. Scientists use the term functional foods very frequently with the inherent knowledge that these foods have added ingredients that provide additional health benefits beyond the basic nutritional benefits of the food. However, the term functional foods is not widely used by consumers and hence the communication of the added health benefits of functional foods requires clear use of language and good communication strategies.

NutraMara, the Marine Functional Foods Research Initiative is a multi-centre research consortium focussing on the identification and characterisation of novel bioactives as potential ingredients for functional foods. Researchers in the programme have carried out a consumer study to gain an understanding of general consumer attitudes to functional foods and, in particular, to expand on the concept of marine-derived bioactive compounds as ingredients in functional foods.

The study found that consumers had a strong awareness of the health benefits of eating fish and seafood. While few consumers were aware of the concept of foods with additional health benefits, they were not familiar with the term functional foods. Once this had been explained to them, on balance, most were comfortable with the concept of these foods.

The study also explored consumers’ attitudes to functional ingredients derived from marine sources. Examples of these include bioactives from seaweeds and crab-shells incorporated into foods such as bread and dairy products (yogurts). The study found a high level of acceptance of these types of foods and willingness to use such products amongst participants.

Dr Sinéad McCarthy, Teagasc researcher and leader of the consumer study commented that the consumers’ perception of the health benefit of these types of ingredients was critical. In particular where the benefit was associated with a perceived need, e.g., societal health issues such as obesity, diabetes and heart health, there was strong interest in these types of products. Interestingly, where the marine-derived functional ingredient was proposed to be used for purposes other than for being beneficial for health, (e.g., to prevent spoiling in bread), the acceptance was significantly reduced.

The study highlighted that while the concept of functional foods and ingredients was viewed positively, the terminology and language used to communicate the benefits of marine-derived functional ingredients and foods was critically important. Targeted marketing campaigns with careful use of language will play a pivotal role in acceptance of these foods.

The article ‘Acceptance of marine functional foods requires effective communication’ features in the spring 2014 issue of TResearch, Teagasc’s research and innovation magazine. NutraMara is funded under the Sea Change Strategy with the support of the Marine Institute and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, funded under the National Development Plan 2007-2013.