Consumers in the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey are adopting a proactive approach to health and wellness
As is happening in other regions around the world, consumers in the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey (MENAT) are embracing a healthier lifestyle to prevent disease now and to keep it at bay in later years. With COVID-19 driving awareness of the importance of well-being, and the negative health effects of conditions such as obesity becoming more apparent to individuals and public health officials, there’s growing interest in food and beverages that deliver on health benefits.
Many food companies are now fortifying products with nutrients such as fibre, proteins, vitamins and minerals, as well as innovating with science-backed ingredients like probiotics, fermented foods and beta-glucans to address the needs of the health-conscious consumer. The past five years show evidence of this trend, with product launches in MENAT with a functional claim showing a 23% CAGR, per Mintel. In 2019, the functional food and beverage market in MENAT was estimated at US$9.09b, according to Euromonitor Passport, based on a projected 2.8% CAGR over 2014 to 2019, with the dairy and snack bar category seeing significant growth.
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COVID-19 ups demand for health and wellness products
Consumers in the region today recognize that poor lifestyle choices increase the risk of disease and illness, especially with age. COVID-19 accelerated the demand for products that promote health and wellness. For example, between January and March 2020, Google searches for ‘boost the immune system’ rose by 88% in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).
Kerry MENAT Proactive Health Proprietary Consumer Research, which surveyed consumers in KSA and Turkey in June 2020, showed that 78% of consumers in KSA are buying more healthy lifestyle products as a result of the pandemic. Immune health is, unsurprisingly, the top priority for MENAT consumers when buying healthy lifestyle products, with digestive health and heart health also front of mind.
Amongst these groups, morning is regarded as the best time of day to consume food and beverages that support good health, with yoghurt and yoghurt drinks, bakery, snacks and fruit juices being popular choices. While traditional natural ingredients such as ginger and honey are most associated with immunity and digestive health in KSA, probiotics is the leading ingredient for Turkish consumers.
Obesity a major risk for non-communicable diseases
While attention has been focused on COVID-19, obesity remains one of the main health concerns for the MENAT region. A shift towards an increasingly energy-dense diet with excessive intake of fat, salt and sugar, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle—about 130 million adults in the region are physically inactive—has caused obesity rates to rise rapidly within the region.
In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) Eastern Mediterranean Region showed the highest levels of insufficient physical activity globally in adolescents (87%) and women (44%). Data by the WHO from 16 countries in the MENAT region reveal the greatest incidence of overweight and obesity in Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. Between 74% to 86% of women and 69% to 77% of men are overweight or obese.
Of greater concern is the escalating level of childhood obesity, considering the increased risk of obesity and morbidity in adulthood. This is particularly pertinent because obesity is a risk factor for many non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer and type 2 diabetes, all major contributors to premature deaths. The region has seen a surge in non-communicable diseases in recent years with more than 150 million people living with a non-communicable disease according to the WHO and research published in the journal The Lancet. Adding to the problem are recent scientific learnings suggesting that obesity-related conditions seem to worsen the effects of COVID-19, as seen in Obesity Reviews.
Regulatory action to fight health concerns
To combat ballooning obesity rates, authorities in MENAT have been actively implementing nutrition initiatives and regulations over recent years. The WHO regional strategy for MENAT has targeted a 35% reduction in obesity among children and adults and outlined strategies for governments to address this issue. These include introducing nutrition labelling schemes that help consumers make healthier choices as well as monitoring the food environment for nutritional quality, prices and marketing practices. This has prompted regulations and guidelines for ingredients like sugar, sodium and trans-fat, which have become a major focus for governments in the region.
These regulations and guidelines directly impact food manufacturers when formulating, launching and labelling healthy lifestyle products in the region. The regional guidelines on the use of these claims should be reviewed by a regulatory team ahead of new product launches.
A nutrient claim suggests or implies that a food has particular benefit due to the presence or absence of nutrients, for instance ‘High in fibre’ and ‘Sugar-reduced’. There will be clear nutrient thresholds in order to make these claims. For example, in many places sugar must be reduced by 30% in order to make a reduced claim.
A health claim implies that a relationship exists between a food or one of its constituents and health, for example, ‘omega-3 contributes to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol’. Health claims are based on expert evaluation of the scientific data supporting the claim. The term ‘probiotic’ itself is considered a health claim, as it implies that beneficial bacteria are present in a product. Many countries globally approve the use of the term ‘probiotic’, including Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. However, probiotic claim in Saudi Arabia is not yet permitted. Manufacturers there can use the term ‘cultures’ in lieu of ‘probiotic’. Some 60% of consumers in Saudi Arabia associate the word ‘cultures’ with probiotic benefits. This is common practice in Europe where the term ‘probiotic’ is also prohibited.
Science-backed research and consumer education
To deliver the health and wellness products consumers want, manufacturers can use proven ingredients and educate consumers on their effectiveness. Quality research is key to consumer trust and brand credibility. Ingredients that are safe, natural and clinically proven can reduce fear of the unknown, especially in today’s world of misinformation and mistrust.
Immunity supporting ingredients such as Wellmune®, a proprietary yeast beta-glucan, and probiotics have seen success in many functional foods and beverages worldwide due to their science-backed health benefits. According to a 2019 global consumer survey conducted by Kerry, 72% of global customers are interested in purchasing products with Wellmune and 95% of consumers in various global regions say they would or probably would buy a product with Kerry’s proprietary probiotic GanedenBC30®.
But beyond data, teaching consumers about the science reinforces trust and transparency. Providing information through white papers, webinars, digital and social platforms help brands connect with and educate consumers. Also important are evidence of regulatory approvals or certifications, and giving consumers a clear point of reference on the product when browsing shelves.
With this increased focus on well-being and demand for health and wellness products, brands will need to be mindful of the degree to which they deliver on health claims. Consumers are looking for transparency and brands that they can trust more than ever—59% of KSA consumers are more likely to buy a healthy lifestyle product with claims based on scientific data, according to Mintel.
Formulation for optimal taste and nutrition
Delivering on taste remains the most important consideration for the formulation of healthy food and beverages. The challenge is to provide healthy lifestyle products that are also nutritionally optimised in line with government guidelines for sugar, sodium and fat, yet meet consumer expectations that great taste should not be sacrificed for nutrition.
When sugar and sodium are reduced, taste modulators are key to maintaining flavour. Furthermore, functional ingredients need to be odour- and taste-neutral so that manufacturers can deliver on a great tasting product with added health benefits.
The ease of formulation and product stability are also important when considering new ingredients. Formulating with ingredients that do not add complexity to the existing manufacturing processes such as storage conditions, line extensions or shelf life of the product, allows for quick and efficient product launches to market. Traditionally, probiotics are fragile to manufacturing processes such as heat and pressure, which has relegated them to short shelf life products such as dairy. However, innovations in spore-forming probiotics such as GanedenBC30 brings the immune and digestive benefits of cultures to new product categories popular with consumers such as snacks, cereals, beverages, ice cream, tea and coffee.
One reformulation approach is Kerry’s Hook, Halo and Hero concept, which leverages proprietary consumer insights to create a winning product that’s both delicious and nutritious. Here, the Hook, Halo and Hero approach as it could be applied to the snacks category:
- Hook refers to a popular flavor, format or product category that attracts the consumer, like on- the-go-cereal bar, which is becoming popular in MENAT.
- Halo refers to trending ingredients perceived to have a health benefit. For instance, honey and ginger flavor are strongly associated with immune and digestive health in KSA.
- Hero ingredient is one that's scientifically supported to deliver on health benefits such as GanedenBC30 probiotic, which consumers in the region are familiar with.
The opportunity to win in the functional food and beverage market in MENAT is clear. Consumers are looking for research supported healthy lifestyle products and authorities are encouraging the food industry to create healthier options.
Innovating to produce food and beverages that consumers in MENAT value requires a deep understanding of the region’s ever-evolving lifestyle needs and regulatory requirements and the challenges in formulation. To partner with Kerry on your next product or a product reformulation, contact us.