Got (More Than) Milk? Market Braces For Functional Foods

For the 50% of Americans with borderline or high cholesterol levels, treatment may soon come from a glass of milk or a granola bar and not a doctor's prescription.

Kroger is the latest to introduce a product with CoroWise, a plant-based food additive that can reduce cholesterol 8-15%. But marketing experts predict a flood of souped-up dairy products to hit the market very soon.

Kroger, which reportedly will market the milk under its Active Lifestyle brand, "is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of value-added milks," says Gail Barnes, vice president/business development for Dairy Management Inc., an affiliate of the National Dairy Council. In other countries, she says, milk products that boost bone health, aid memory and contain Omega-3s--another heart-healthy ingredient--are already quite popular. "We can expect to see many, many more value-added products being launched."

The big question of course, is how responsive U.S. consumers will be. While functional foods have wide appeal, many health-conscious consumers are actively seeking fewer chemicals in many foods, particularly dairy products.



"We tested an idea like this with consumers," says Jim Lesser, director of marketing for Oakhurst Dairy, a Portland, Maine-based company, a pioneer in asking its farmers not to use artificial growth hormone. "We found they were less than receptive than they were to some other ideas we've got in the pipeline."

Oakhurst already markets Nu-trish, a line of milk with added probiotics.

Barnes says the value-added milk category, which includes about 3.8 billion pounds of milk, is growing at about 6% a year. (The U.S. produced about 182 billion pounds of milk in 2006.) "In five years, we are expecting this category to increase to five billion pounds," she says.

And, of course, dairy isn't the only category that marketers are jazzing up with health and wellness functions. CoroWise is also available in General Mills' Nature Valley Healthy Heart Chewy Granola Bars, Coca-Cola's Minute Maid Premium Heartwise orange juice (Coca-Cola), and Hain Celestial's Rice Dreams Heart Wise rice drink, as well as Orowheat Whole Grain & Oat bread, Vitatops muffin products and Lifetime Lowfat Cheese.

Cargill, the Minneapolis-based marketer of CoroWise, hopes it will appeal to the many Americans with cholesterol problems. "The general positioning is that it's great for any consumer seeking healthy ways to lower cholesterol," says Pam Stauffer, marketing programs manager for Cargill. "We've found that it's perfect for people with cholesterol levels of around 220--borderline high. Sometimes, they can avoid medication entirely."

After all, consumers are already spending billions on statin drugs, including Lipitor. And controlling cholesterol just by diet is difficult: Even a very strict diet can lower cholesterol only a little, while drugs tend to lower it a lot. So it makes sense that consumers would be open to a middle ground. CoroWise products carry the U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved claim, "may reduce the risk of coronary disease.")

"The challenge is that people are always skeptical, at first," says Stauffer. "But with more large companies, like Kroger, General Mills and Coke rolling out these foods, that counters skepticism, and people will feel more familiar with them."

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