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The role of functional food and beverage in the era of COVID-19

Prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Americans were already feeling anxious and stressed. The Hartman Group’s Health + Wellness 2019: From Mindfulness to Moderation report highlighted rising anxiety as a primary health issue facing consumers. Now, with more than half of 2020 behind us and with the ongoing pandemic fear of contagion adding fuel to the ever-increasing stress of daily life, it is not surprising that the issue of anxiety continues to be prominent. Routine activities such as work, shopping, dining out, and childcare have all been disrupted contributing to a national mood that feels generally fearful and uncertain.

Realizing that the resulting anxiety along with stay-at-home orders would have impacts on household routines and the pandemic’s role as a catalyst for engagement with health and wellness, The Hartman Group fielded a new study that coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our Functional Food & Beverage and Supplements 2020 report finds that 89% of those aware of the pandemic cited disruption to their household. These disruptions and concerns are prompting reconfiguration and re-examination of daily routines.

COVID-19: How food works in the household has changed

Most households are seeing significant change to their shopping, cooking, and eating routines. To boost immunity and overall health and wellness within the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are increasingly seeking out functional food and beverage products that they believe might aid in the body’s defenses.

Engaging in comfort food consumption for emotional well-being, consumers are also proactively stocking pantries for physical health.

Our Functional Food & Beverage and Supplements 2020 report finds that almost a third of consumers say they’re consuming more supplements (31%), functional foods or functional beverages (29%). This can take the form of adopting entirely new solutions or rededicating oneself to regular use of familiar ones.

According to the report, at least half of adult consumers claim to use functional food (58%) or beverage (56%) solutions to treat or prevent a specific condition, including general prevention efforts. They tend to look to food for help with energy, weight management, digestion, and cardiovascular conditions. Beverages are used, not surprisingly, for hydration—but also for energy, bone and joint health, and immunity.

It is estimated that almost 90% of adult consumers today look for functional benefits in their food, beverages, and, of course, supplements. Supplements are more traditionally and transparently functional, with claims around benefits and potency explicitly linking their ingredients to desired outcomes. The food and beverage space is a bit cloudier, as it encompasses both inherent and enhanced or fortified versions of products. But even the lines between supplements and functional foods/beverages are blurring, as some supplement formats (such as powders and syrups) are added to food and beverages.

These efforts to address mental and physical health reflect holistic notions of health and wellness, and consumer desire for empowerment and resilience. As one Millennial consumer told us:

“This coronavirus has made me a lot more diligent about my health routine…making sure I take my supplements—on top of probiotics, getting those fermented foods in my diet, making sure I'm taking that multivitamin every day...”

We have witnessed consumers during this era of coronavirus stocking up for health. A Boomer put it to us this way:

“Due to COVID, I stock up on oatmeal, sardines, tuna, nuts, dried seaweed and Emergen-C drink.”

Functional foods in focus

The cultural spotlight has swung far away from a desire for products produced artificially and we find consumers increasingly embracing proactive wellness lifestyles, with health paradigms shifting toward "knowing thyself" through feeling well, resting, exercising, acting preventatively and above all, eating fresh, less processed, and what they view as, "good food." The consumption of "good foods" (and beverages) is an especially important part of understanding what's functional today, since consumers increasingly see foods and beverages as the foundation of wellness and consequently are seeking whole forms that are inherently nutritious.

In the days ahead, consumers will continue to expand their interest in positive nutrition with consequent focus on the inherent nutritional characteristics of unadulterated foods and beverages that cue fresh and less processed. At the same time, consumers are open to dietary and nutritional techniques to prevent or manage a wide range of health conditions but need help and expertise.

Consumers will be trying to understand more about how specific foods or beverages used to manage a health condition might be combined with pharmaceutical interventions (if needed). Successful products will call out functional, real, food ingredients that consumers associate with inherent health rather than scientific creation.

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As CEO of The Hartman Group, Demeritt drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company's associates as The Hartman Group furthers its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global marketplace.

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