Sweet Deliverance

Caffeine-infused potato chips. Ginseng-infused coffee. Guarana-infused gum. No matter the combination, functional food manufacturers are probably trying it.

Add this one to the list: Sedative-infused chocolates.

The confectionary world is on its way to proving the salability of health and energy products doesn’t have to end at the threshold of the candy aisle. In the functional food and beverage category, confections could defy improbability to become potential lures for health-conscious and energy-starved consumers.

Budding research shows shoppers are stepping up their search for better-for-you and good-for-you products, while candy and chocolate innovators are responding to this trend by creating functional foods that cater to enjoyment as well as health and energy.

Energy drinks have spent years proving this possible, dominating the functional beverages category. According to the recently-released NACS 2008 State of the Industry (SOI) report, data showed energy drink sales were up almost 26% from the year prior, second only to carbonated soft drinks in the packaged beverages category. Power bars also remain a staple functional food segment, posting 1.6% growth over last year and holding the No. 2 spot as the best-selling alternative snack item.

As a whole, functional foods and beverages are poised for solid growth in the coming year, likely to jump from $75 billion in global sales to $109 billion, according to the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), whose "Top 10 Functional Food Trends" found that in the U.S., functional beverage sales could top $34 billion by 2010, while functional foods could reach $29 billion.

IRI’s February 2008 Consumer Trend Watch showed the growing awareness between diet and health is indeed transforming consumers’ product perceptions. No longer do consumers want to eat for eating’s sake, they want to eat specialty products delivering special benefits.

The IRI report identified eight emerging trends pushing growth of consumer packaged goods, three of which apply directly to functionality of foods and beverages:

• Food as a health solution: Consumers want food and beverages to help with disease management and prevention.

• Food as an energy solution: Consumers want energy boosts through products apart from the functional beverages category.

• Food as a natural beauty solution: There’s a growing interest in food products delivering beauty benefits.

IFT’s research offered more detailed patterns by demographic need:

• Consumers ages 18 to 24 are most likely to snatch up caffeine- or vitamin-infused products for supercharged energy or enhanced mental states. Ginseng, guarana and taurine are among key ingredients to this end.

• The country’s growing elderly population, a demographic expected to grow by 70% in the coming years, is increasingly turning to products that help fight heart disease, cholesterol, cancer, osteoporosis, arthritis, dental maladies and diabetes.

• More than 60% of consumers said they’re looking for vitamin C in their products to prevent disease, followed by calcium (49%), B vitamins (46%), fiber (35%), antioxidants and vitamin E (33% each), as well as potassium, iron, folic acid and more.

• "Of all the new functional food concepts, consumers are most interested in new products that improve mental performance," according to IFT. "Over one-third (35%) strongly believe that foods can be used to improve mental health."


Confection Connection

Where does candy fit into this equation? Consider this: Sans health benefits, candy was sixth on the top 10 list of c-store categories, according to NACS SOI data. Melding its grab-and-go mentality with consumers’ growing demand for fortified products, c-stores could become a premier channel for functional candy and chocolates.

"With today’s grab-and-go lifestyle and rising gas prices, convenience stores have become a powerhouse for sales of some healthy products," IFT reported.

Chocolate bars and candy haven’t historically been touted as good-for-you alternatives to rightfully healthy products, but candy manufacturers are tweaking their offerings to change this perception.

Sleep-deprived adults, who make up half the U.S. population, could soon be turning to manufacturers like San Francisco-based Dreamerz, maker of Chocolate Pillows, a chocolate infused with the sedatives melatonin and GABA.

Mars Snackfoods recently introduced two functional chocolate bars catering precisely to health-conscious consumers. Dove Beautiful is a milk-chocolate candy bar containing Vitamins C and E, Biotin, Zinc and natural cocoa flavanols, while Dove Vitalize is a dark-chocolate candy bar containing B vitamins and cocoa flavanols.

Both of these new chocolate bars have two health benefits IRI said consumers are seeking in functional foods: an energy boost and a beauty boost. The Vitalize bar’s vitamin B ingredients enhance energy, while Dove Beautiful’s cocoa flavanols help with hydration to promote healthier skin, according to Mars Snackfoods.

"We believe that consumers want a holistic approach to living, and they really care about what the family is eating," said Ryan Bowling, Mars Snackfood’s public relations manager. "Health and wellness is a leading trend in the premium chocolate category, and consumers want more from their chocolate."

Earlier this year, Mars Snackfoods floated the limited-edition release of Snickers Charged, a caffeine-infused candy bar containing taurine and vitamin B, staple ingredients for an energy-enhancing product.

Snickers Charged retailed from January to March this year, as the company sought to "capitalize on consumer trends" and try a new item "without over-saturating the market," Bowling said.

At a Speedway SuperAmerica c-store just outside Cleveland, Ohio, a manager said in April that the Snickers Charged bar was popular with the morning crowd at the store, where some customers would pluck three or four of the limited-edition candy bars off the shelf during a single visit.

Some retailers, however, said they aren’t willing to give up valuable shelf space for functional candy and gum products, since the items have yet to prove profitable.

"We don’t carry very much, or any of that," said Lon Audet, merchandiser for Boise, Idaho-based Stinker Stores. "Our focus is still on the liquids."

Snickers Charged sold poorly at Stinker Stores’ 50 Idaho locations, as did other functional chocolate bars, gums and candy at the stores, Audet said, cautioning that he won’t eliminate any food segment as a viable option.

"Nothing has really tripped our trigger to say we have to have it," Audet said. "For the long term, who knows? I never thought those little two-ounce energy shots would be as big a deal as they are."

Capturing these trends as they come, however, may sometimes mean taking the product to the prey.

"Winning in this environment requires being at least one step ahead," IRI’s report said. "Catching a trend as it is just emerging, and sometimes addressing a need that consumers did not even realize they had."


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