How do millennials feed their growing interest in health and wellness? They search. In our new Food Trends Report we analyzed Google Search data to find five major trends. Here we share more insight on one, the rise of "functional foods," and why there's a big opportunity for brands.

Written by
Pedro Pina
April 2016

Today's dinner table looks quite different than it did just 10 years ago. For one, there's likely a smartphone next to the fork. And on each plate, there might be a different meal—mom's paleo, dad's vegan, the kids' gluten- and nut-free. At first glance, you might think these changes are unrelated. And you might bemoan what's become of the family dinner. But it could be that, thanks to the technology at our fingertips, people are actually much more thoughtful about what they feed themselves and their loved ones.

That mindfulness is apparent in micro-moments when consumers rely on Google Search to learn more about food. Through an analysis of these searches in the food category over the last two years, we are able to get a large-scale look at people's interests and intentions.

Fueling interest in health and wellness with digital

"To eat healthy, you have to pay a lot of attention," says Dr. Frank Lipman, the founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in Manhattan. And people are, especially millennials, he contends. "They are 10 times more aware than my generation," says Lipman, and are "much more interested in staying healthy and eating healthy."

Now, the focus of people's diets is less about eliminating foods than about adding them.

Perhaps this growing "obsession with health," as food and restaurant consultant Michael Whiteman puts it, is in part due to the fact that people are living longer, and want their extra years to be healthy ones. (As the saying goes "If I knew I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself.") But both he and Lipman point to digital as a major catalyst for our growing health food fixation. "There's no question it's coming from the web," says Lipman.

To eat right, people are going online to raise their food IQ and make more informed choices. In what-do-I-eat-moments, they're searching for the best foods to eat for certain physiological benefits. According to Google Trends, "best foods for" searches have grown 10X since 2005,1 often followed by terms like "skin," "energy," "acid reflux," "your brain," and "gym workout."2


Learning about the benefits of "functional foods"

According to the new Food Trends Report, there is a growing consumer interest in the health-enhancing role of specific foods, or what experts call "functional foods."


A number of the top trending foods over the last two years are "healthy" ingredients like turmeric, apple cider vinegar, avocado oil, bitter melon, and kefir (high in trendy bacteria called probiotics). They are said to infer benefits like better skin, libido, and energy or cures for depression, insomnia, and pain (in fact, "benefits" is a term that's commonly searched for along with many of these foods).2 Now, the focus of people's diets is less about eliminating foods than about adding them.

While the concept of functional foods has been around for decades, interest in these specific foods is growing faster than before. Turmeric, a spice that's purported to cure everything from cancer to depression, is the breakout star, with searches growing 300% over the last five years.3


In what-do-I-eat moments, searching on mobile and Mondays

In what-do-I-eat moments, people pull out their smartphones to find information on healthy foods. For five of the top 10 trending functional foods, over 50% of the searches are on mobile.4 In fact, according to a recent study of people who searched for food and beverage terms, 35% did so exclusively on a phone.5

These moments happen most at the start of the week, when people may be planning meals, making grocery lists, or redevoting themselves to healthy eating after an indulgent weekend. On average, searches for the top 10 functional foods across devices peak on Mondays, and slowly decline throughout the week until interest reaches its lowest point on Fridays.6


Finding a range of recipes in how-to-add-it moments


Once people know what to eat, they want to know how to eat it. In these how-to-add-it moments, they're looking for different forms and recipes. For example, top associations with turmeric searches show that consumers are looking to better understand how to consume it and incorporate it into their diets; top associated searches include "powder," "smoothie," "recipe," and "drink."7

YouTube is also a popular destination in these moments. The top five videos about ways to consume turmeric (turmeric tea, "golden milk," capsules) have a combined 3.9M views.8

Beyond cooking, consumers and brands are coming up with creative ways to use these ingredients. Top YouTube videos show turmeric being used for teeth whitening, face masks, even dying clothes, while apple cider vinegar is being touted as a conditioner, facial cleanser, and foot soak.


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Brands are "healthifying" products and their positioning

In response, some brands are trying to "healthify" foods by adding functional ingredients. A survey of the supermarket shelf shows ingredients like chia, flax and probiotics being added to crackers, chocolate, and gummies. Moon Juice, a trendy health food spot in Los Angeles, has a line of products named after their benefits (Beauty Dust, Brain Dust, Goodnight Dust). Even beauty brands can capitalize on these trends. Some are adding trending functional ingredients to their products—see Kiehl's Turmeric & Cranberry Seed Energizing Radiance Masque, Freeman's Apple Cider Vinegar 4-in-1 Foaming Clay, and OGX's Coconut Milk Shampoo. (Ulta Beauty is one retailer doing an especially good job capturing search interest in the latter two products.) Nestlé is going so far as to create a line of "medical foods" to treat diseases.

Beyond "healthifying" products, brands can also make a point to better educate consumers on functional foods and ingredients. "There's a lot of misinformation out there," says Marie Spano, sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Hawks, pointing to the need for clearer labeling and easier-to-understand language.

When General Mills noticed a growing consumer interest in gluten-free foods, it responded by adapting everything from product formulations to online advertising. As more and more people become interested in functional foods, brands can take a cue from General Mills. These what-do-I-eat and how-to-add-it moments offer valuable insight into consumer intentions—what people actually want to eat. That means brands have a big opportunity to respond to this growing health and wellness trend in innovative ways.


1 Google Trends, January 2016 vs. January 2005, U.S.
2 Google internal data, 2015, U.S.
3 Google Trends, February 2016 vs. February 2012, U.S.
4 Google internal data, January-March 2016, U.S.
5 Google/Luth, The Role of Mobile on the CPG Purchase Journey, U.S., April 2016. Food and beverage purchasers August 12–31. n = 318
6 Google internal data, September 2015-February 2016, U.S.
7 Google internal data, August 2015-February 2016, U.S.
8 Google internal data, January 2015-February 2016, U.S. Classification as a ”turmeric” consumption video was based on public data such as headlines and tags for videos demonstrating turmeric as a consumable, and may not account for every ”turmeric” consumption video available on YouTube.