During the next three years the United States is forecast to pass Japan as the largest market for functional foods in the world, according to Leatherhead Food Research, Surrey, the United Kingdom.

To ascertain the future and current size of the market for functional foods, Leatherhead defined the category as featuring food and beverages that make specific functional health claims and excludes such products as energy drinks. The market research firm said the leading product categories that will help the United States pass Japan include dairy foods that contain probiotics, and products containing whole grains.

“The functional foods market has experienced fairly strong growth in certain parts of the world,” said Jonathan Thomas, principal market analyst for Leatherhead. “For instance, more U.S. consumers appear to be turning toward functional food and drinks in order to address perceived nutritional shortfalls, away from dietary supplements (which have traditionally been the preferred option). However, future growth is likely to be dependent upon the global economic situation.”

Leatherhead estimated the global market for functional foods was worth $43.27 billion in 2013, an increase in value terms of 26.7% compared with 2009. The global figure is limited to certain parts of the world, including the five major Western European countries, plus the United States, Japan and Australia.

With sales worth an estimated $17.5 billion, Japan accounted for 40.5% of the global functional foods market in 2013. The Leatherhead figure includes products carrying the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare’s FOSHU (Foods for Specified Health Use) status, as well as certain types of foods classed as Food with a Nutrient Food Claim by the Japanese government. Between 2009 and 2013, the Japanese market grew by 25%, according to the Leatherhead data.

The United States now accounts for more than 38% of global market value, with sales worth $16.5 billion in 2013. The U.S. market has grown by more than 29% in the years since 2009, driven by the rising popularity of such functional foods as probiotic dairy foods and breakfast cereals fortified with whole grains, according to Leatherhead.

Europe accounts for an additional 20.2% of global market value, with regional sales dominated by the United Kingdom, France and Germany. With sales worth $520 million, the Australian market was the smallest out of the countries that were reviewed.

Despite the growth between 2009 and 2013, the rates remain below levels observed in the early years of the millennium, according to the Leatherhead report that is titled “Future directions for the global functional foods market.” The market suffered during the global economic downturn, owing to consumers switching to cheaper products, and changes made to regulations, primarily in the European Union, are also thought to have hindered growth.

In the European Union, for example, more pressure is being placed on the manufacturers of functional foods to provide robust scientific evidence supporting the health claims made.

“Changes in E.U. regulations mean that the words probiotic and prebiotic now cannot be used in health claims for digestive health products,” Mr. Thomas said. “Elsewhere, manufacturers of soya milk cannot link soya protein with cholesterol reduction. These are perhaps the best examples of how new directives have changed the marketing of functional foods in the E.U. of late. This is certainly one of the main changes to have taken place since we last reviewed the market in the early summer of 2011.”

Will weight management shine?

Weight management is forecast to be a global growth category for functional foods, with the market for such products reaching $11.2 billion by 2017, according to the report. Much of this growth is expected to be driven by ongoing concerns over worldwide obesity levels, together with the development of food and beverages offering such benefits as satiety.

On the heels of the protein trend in the United States, a number of products have been introduced that offer a satiety benefit. In January, for example, The Dannon Co., White Plains, N.Y., is introducing Dannon Light & Fit Protein Shakes. Yogurt company Chobani also has introduced its Chobani Oats, which is a Greek-style yogurt that features oats as an ingredient.

Ingredient supplier Naturex, Avignon, France, recently exhibited two weight management concepts during the Health Ingredients Europe tradeshow, held Dec. 2-4 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The first concept was slimming noodles enriched with glucomannan (dietary fiber) from konjac, which means the product is permitted to carry the claim in the European Union that it “contributes to weight loss” as part of a calorie-controlled diet. The noodles were prepared with a stock containing a blend of flavoring extracts that made it possible to reduce salt and fat levels, and enhance the health proposition of the product.

The second concept was a Gluco-Control “Mug Cake,” an apple- and cinnamon-flavored muffin presented in a cup and formulated with oat beta-glucans, which are approved in the European Union for the claim “contributes to the reduction of post-prandial glycemic response.” Controlling blood sugar levels is associated with maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, blood sugar concerns and being overweight are health risk factors that often are associated with metabolic syndrome, according to Naturex.

“The European weight management sector was worth $2.8 billion in 2013, according to Euromonitor,” said Leslie Lannebere, business manager for Naturex. “It is a thriving category and the key to success in this market is to create products that help people lose weight and maintain a healthy weight while also offering convenience, delicious taste and a pleasant eating experience. Our slimming noodles and Gluco-Control Mug Cake concepts tick all the right boxes in this respect. Not only are they highly effective and backed by approved health claims, but they also taste fantastic and showcase just what is possible with the right ingredients and recipes.”