Consumers are becoming more aware of how diet influences short- and long-term health and wellness. In response, many are seeking nutrient-dense foods to attain benefits beyond basic nutrition.

Inherently nutritious dairy foods are attractive delivery vehicles for dietary components that work behind the scenes to help prevent disease, as well as deliver a myriad of purported benefits ranging from anti-aging to inducing satiety. When such ingredients, which range from amino acids and fatty acids to antioxidants and plant extracts, are added to dairy foods, they get elevated to functional food status.

It has been driven home that calcium and vitamin D may prevent osteoporosis, while protein refuels muscle after exercise. Omega-3 fatty acids assist with brain development and memory, and oat beta glucan reduces the risk of heart disease.

Most recently, the European Union’s European Food Safety Authority confirmed a new claim that chicory root fiber contributes to better blood glucose management. Food and beverage products containing chicory root fiber instead of sugars induce a lower blood glucose rise after consumption, compared to sugar-containing products. Now that the claim has been approved, marketers may communicate general health-related claims on products made with chicory root fiber, such as “keeping your blood sugar low” or “more balanced blood glucose rise” within the E.U. A similar claim is under review by the Food and Drug Administration.

Scientists continue to isolate and manufacture many powerful dietary components into ingredients for use in functional foods. Such ingredients generally are considered those intended to be consumed as part of the normal diet and contain biologically active components that offer the potential of enhanced health or reduced risk of disease.

The F.D.A. regulates the claims that manufacturers may make about functional foods’ nutrient content and effects on disease, health or body function. There are three categories of claims that may be used in the United States: health claims, nutrient content claims and structure/function claims.

“Proponents of functional foods say they promote optimal health and help reduce the risk of disease,” says Katherine Zeratsky, senior medical editor with the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. “While functional foods may help promote wellness, they can’t make up for poor eating habits.”

This is why inherently nutritious foods, such as dairy, increasingly are getting a boost of extra nutrition.

Further, portion control and portability make many dairy foods attractive snacking options for today’s mini-meal consumer. Such convenience foods — namely cheese, yogurt, drinkable dairy and even ice cream — may be formulated to offer a nutritional profile that appeals to consumers, while the value-added products command a premium price, making them attractive to both manufacturers and retailers.

What dairy offers

The 2016 Food and Health Survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, Washington, shows Americans want to know more about their food and are changing their behaviors based on what they learn. This year, 47% said they look at the ingredients list when deciding what to purchase, up from 40% a year ago.

Interestingly, when American consumers define what makes a food healthy, it’s becoming more about what is not in a food rather than what is in it. The presence of artificial ingredients and preservatives is a leading deal breaker when it comes to purchase intent.

Still, Americans claim they are seeking more of several dietary components, most notably protein and fiber. Dairy may deliver both, and more, while also keeping a clean and simple label void of undesirable artificial ingredients.

According to the IFIC survey, 64% of Americans are seeking protein in the diet, while 60% are trying to consume more fiber. These are both statistically significant increases compared to 2015. So are the increases in omega-3 fatty acids (37% are trying to consume) and probiotics (33%). New to the survey for 2016 was vitamins, which 56% of respondents said they are trying to consume, as well as prebiotics (12%). Dairy foods may be designed to deliver all of these important dietary components.

Dairy foods are inherent sources of what most Americans want more of, which is protein. Every ounce of fluid milk contains 1 oz of protein. Depending on the product and processing, the inherent protein content of dairy foods may be concentrated. Further, adding additional protein to dairy products in the form of milk protein concentrate, nonfat dry milk or whey, for example, may further boost protein content.

After protein, fiber is likely the leading functional ingredient being added to dairy foods. The health benefits of consumption range from digestive health to weight management.

According to a survey of 1,250 males and 1,250 females between the ages of 18 and 64 in seven countries (France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom and United States) conducted by United Kingdom-based Datamonitor Consulting, and commissioned by Sensus, The Netherlands, the majority of consumers believe foods and beverages that contain fiber will help them stay healthy. The survey showed consumers increasingly care about their digestive health, which they perceive to be important for general health. With growing attention to digestive health, they increasingly are seeking prebiotic and probiotic food products, such as yogurt and other fermented foods, to help optimize digestion.