Hot food idea needs a spark

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There's no "magic bullet" when it comes to functional foods. Some act to lower cholesterol, build bones or increase joint flexibility, but they don't cure heart disease, osteoporosis or arthritis. Similarly, there appears to be no magic bullet for functional foods marketing.

The potential for the category seems boundless as baby boomers age -- according to Modern Maturity, consumers age 85-plus are the fastest-growing population group, and by 2050 there will be 4.2 million centenarians. Yet one after another, otherwise successful food marketing giants are discontinuing or drastically trimming back their "nutraceutical" offerings. Campbell Soup Co. and Kellogg Co. bailed out on their failed Intelligent Quisine and Ensemble lines, respectively, and McNeil Consumer Products scaled back Benecol -- originally conceived as a Healthy Choice-style megabrand -- to a single spread line.

"It's a challenge to educate people on the difference between Benecol and a low-fat margarine," a McNeil spokeswoman offered as a reason for its Benecol cutbacks. That's quite a statement considering the company initially allocated $80 million in media advertising to that task.

Certainly, functional food marketers must walk a fine line regarding health claims, and they've wisely enlisted physicians and health experts to further their cause. Still, something is missing in the marketing. Perhaps the Benecols are moving too fast into too many categories before their brand name is established -- or are turning off the advertising too early. Quite possibly, prices -- at $5 for a package of margarine -- are too high for seniors on limited incomes. Maybe product benefits aren't clearly enough communicated -- or are communicated in an unappetizing, medicinal way.

There may be no marketing cure-all for functional foods. But the category's unrealized potential should give players food for thought.

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