Sports Nutrition

What is functional dairy? While it used to connote yoghurts with claims of probiotics being essential for health, EFSA has made such assertions a thing of the past since the enforcement of new regulations. These rules have clamped down on unsupported health claims relating to antioxidants and prebiotics, reducing the number of allowed declarations to 228. This has revitalized the sector with marketing now focusing instead on other tools to give products the desired ‘health halo’, which can be provided by superfood ingredients and protein among others.

Highlighting various vitamins and broad assertions of being ‘good for general health and wellbeing’ have also become more widespread. Products such as Danone’s Actimel which previously relied on prebiotic claims has adopted this positioning to some success, as has Dairy Crest’s Clover Additions which markets itself based on high calcium content and added vitamins.

Functional foods are infiltrating many of the grocery aisles with Superfoods such as chia seeds and flax becoming common ingredients. Most consumers are aware that blueberries and kale are good for them, though they don’t necessarily know why. The general awareness of the goodness these Superfoods signify is being capitalized on in the functional dairy sector, much like it is in the soft drink, soup and snacking markets.

As these Superfood claims are not regulated, their use as ingredients is a cunning method of inferring health benefits to customers. Their use can be seen throughout the dairy market, from the spreads containing kale and broccoli to blueberry whey drinks. It’s not just small specialist brands operating in this area, as exemplified by the recent launch of a smoothie drink containing fruit and oats under dairy giant Friesland Campina’s Yazoo brand.

Perhaps the most notable development within the functional dairy category is the phenomenal success of protein. Although traditionally a male-dominated market, RTD protein drinks have grown to account to 10.7% of flavoured milk sales. Part of this success is its appeal to a range of demographics – men wanting stronger muscles, weight-conscious women wanting to feel satiated and elderly people wanting to preserve muscle function. Even children are a developing target market For Goodness Shakes recently launching its Milk Shoot product containing 25% added milk protein.

Even Nestle is showing interest with its recent patent application for a protein-balancing product aimed at children aged 5-15. Protein has infiltrated flavoured milk and is also proving highly popular in the yoghurt category. Greek yoghurt, a rich source of protein, has been a particular triumph with sales up 22% year on year. Brands such as Danio are seeing particular success through drawing attention to the high protein content.

So what’s next for functional dairy? There does appear to be a gap in the market for protein-enhanced products lower in calories and sugar. Perhaps this could be achieved by embracing the Stevia trend. A protein product low in calories would target weight conscious consumers only currently catered for by lackluster Atkins and Slim-fast brands with their strong dieting identity. Another area of NPD could lie in beauty supplements such as collagen-enhanced milk, a product proving hugely popular in Japan, and could bring dairy into the anti-ageing industry, estimated to be worth some $270 billion globally.

But perhaps we need to look backwards rather than forwards. Although it is tempting to assume probiotic claims are a thing of the past, the Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics is not giving up easily, claiming that recent scientific research supports the claim for probiotics in general offering substantial benefits for gut health. In fact, increasing scientific research does seem to be making strides in identifying the benefits of gut bacteria with recent claims relating to treatments of mental disorders such as anxiety and even autism. One thing is for sure though, as long as consumers continue to strive for healthy and varied diets while prioritising taste and convenience, functional foods are here to stay.

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