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Research examines potential market for functional foods

“They want to have better education as to why they’re choosing certain products.”


Baby boomers are keen to eat well and stay healthy as they age, but personal health isn’t the only thing on their minds.

Food products specific to the needs of an aging population should also emphasize locally grown and processed ingredients too.

Those are preliminary findings of research underway at University of Manitoba on baby boomers’ perceptions of healthy eating and foods available in the marketplace. The research is part of a larger initiative in Manitoba aimed at spurring development of new nutrient-enriched, age-specific food products using crops Manitoba farmers grow.

The province announced funding last February for two years of research and product development, to be carried about by the university and the Food Development Centre at Portage la Prairie.

University researchers working with MAFRI staff drew together 10 focus groups across rural and urban Manitoba communities earlier this year. Participants between the ages of 43 and 62 were asked to rank their health, and talk about their food-purchasing behaviours and preferences.

Christina Lengyel, assistant professor in the department of human nutritional sciences at the University of Manitoba, is conducting the research. Her findings are preliminary; there is more data to analyze. But Manitobans do seem “quite receptive” to functional food, or foods that impart some kind of health benefit beyond their traditional nutrients, she said in a presentation at the university last week.

Functional food – a term not likely to be used in marketing – is food with some kind of proven or demonstrated physiological benefit beyond basic nutrition. It’s a food product category expected to interest an aging population if these foods can impart benefits that help ward off chronic diseases such as diminishing joint health or cardiovascular disease.

Wary of claims

Still, people are skeptical about claims on food, this research finds. They’re wary of misleading advertising and confusing product names on packaging, Lengyel said. They even tend to distrust nutrition labelling. “They want to have better education as to why they’re choosing certain products,” she said.

Ninety per cent of research participants ranked their health as good, but many also said they don’t get enough fibre, calcium, vitamin D or antioxidants in their regular diet.

The rural-based focus groups expressed significant interest in where ingredients would be sourced and want to see any benefits from new food product development accrue to farmers and local economies. “They have voiced this opinion over and over in our focus groups,” Lengyel said. Urban focus groups spoke about this less often, however, fewer urban focus groups were conducted.

Size of packaging and how easy products are to lift or open will also concern boomers as they age. Older adults with diminishing muscle strength won’t want to lift heavy four-litre jugs, or twist off tight caps on large drink bottles.

A final report on the research will be available next spring.

Meanwhile, a second phase of the project commences in the new year, with staff at the Food Development Centre at Portage la Prairie beginning development of new food product prototypes.

Interest in commercializing these products will be sought through the Manitoba Food Processors Association (MFPA).

Financial support for university research is from Manitoba Rural Adaptation Council (MRAC), and Manitoba’s Rural Economic Development Initiative (REDI) program.

About the author


Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.



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