Almost half of all Americans have higher-than-healthy cholesterol levels, increasing their risk for heart disease, the country’s No. 1 killer, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). That figure is likely to rise dramatically as large numbers of baby boomers hit the big 6-0. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that about 10.1 million boomers turned 60 or older last year and projects this number to triple in the next five years.
As a result, medical professionals and consumers are increasingly looking to functional foods, including a new breed of “super breads” fortified with natural cholesterol-busting plant sterols (micronutrients that occur naturally in the membranes of some grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds) and omega-3 fatty acids (most commonly found in salmon and other fatty fishes; flaxseed, soybean, walnut, and canola oil; and some vegetables).
Last year, some of the nation’s largest bread manufacturers introduced products to make sure that cholesterol-conscious consumers will look to the loaf as one of the first lines of defense against elevated low-density lipoprotein (LDL), aka “bad” cholesterol. Mexico-based bakery goliath Grupo Bimbo’s Arnold (the brand name in the northeastern and southeastern U.S.), Brownberry (the name in the mid-west), and Oroweat each launched plant sterol–enriched loaves. Also Thomas’ added the cholesterol-fighting fortifiers to new English muffin and bagel products. Kroger, one of the largest grocery retailers in the nation, recently debuted six varieties of proprietary Active Lifestyle breads featuring plant sterols.
As for the omega-3s, Arnold and Brownberry as well as Flowers Foods’ Nature’s Own brands, promote them as key ingredients in new loaves. Ditto for Oroweat, which also added an omega-enriched muffin to its product line.
Omega-3s aren’t a particularly hard sell to consumers. These nutrients have long been touted for their cholesterol-lowering properties. The Mayo Clinic says that, in people who have already had heart attacks, omega-3 fatty acids significantly reduce the risk of sudden death. The aha promotes that “omega-3 fatty acids benefit the heart of healthy people and those at high risk of—or who have—cardiovascular disease.”
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is waiting for additional conclusive evidence about the efficacy of omega-3s, the agency has taken the position that the nutrients “may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease” and allows manufacturers to suggest the link between these nutrients and heart health on their labels so long as they include appropriate qualifying statements such as the product’s total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol content.
In a report released in January, Packaged Facts noted “the market for omega-3 fatty acids alone grew 34 percent from an estimated $3 billion in 2006, when they began to attain mainstream status, to almost $5 billion in 2007.” The firm projects that by 2012, the retail market for omega-3 enriched foods will approach $8 billion.
Sales of functional foods overall have grown by nearly 10 percent since 2006, reports the market-research firm Mintel. In 2008, more than 40 percent of respondents in a Mintel survey said they recently purchased a functional food, nearly double the number from 2006. In its “Functional Food, Drinks & Ingredients: Consumer Attitudes & Trends” report last year, Datamonitor concluded that customers are spending more on functional food and drinks across the U.S. and that “the functional food and beverage market is entering a critical era.”
Consumer interest in functional foods seems to be here to stay. In a survey released last year by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), close to 80 percent of respondents agreed that some specific foods can improve heart health. Ninety percent said they either consume or are interested in consuming foods and beverages that provide heart health benefits.