Have you heard the term “functional foods”? Manufacturers cannot legally claim their products prevent or cure disease, but they can market health-promoting or wellness-maintaining properties – if they have credible science behind the claims.
You have seen these products in your local grocery store, whether or not you recognized them as “functional foods”. They are items like probiotic yogurt to help your digestion or vitamin-packed water to help your immune system. They appear everywhere these days – or so it seems.
And according to a recent article in the New York Times, they may be no better than the standard varieties of these products that are sold without the fancy advertising. Still, we are buying them in large volumes. Sales of these foods totaled $37.3 billion in the U.S. in 2009. With the increased corporate profits, regulators are taking a keen interest in keeping the claims honest (and legal!).
Some of the questionable claims:
1. Quaker Oatmeal Squares cereal “helps to reduce cholesterol!” Yes, the fiber in oats is good for your heart, but you would need 3 bowls daily to to benefit.
2. Welch’s 100% Grape Juice has the American Heart Association red heart certification on the label (no fat!), yet 1 cup contains as much sugar as a regular-size Snicker’s bar.
3. We have all seen the Activia ads, claiming to improve “occasional irregularity”. While it may support healthy digestion if eaten 3 times a day – how many people do that? – it does not have scientific backing for claiming to “regulate your digestive system in two weeks.” After regulators took issue with the claim, Dannon settled with the F.T.C. and agreed not to continue the ads without stating that it must be consumed 3 times daily to improve regularity.
4. Have you noticed the Kellogg’s mini-wheats ads? You know – the ones with the kids who ate them and were more alert in school. Kellogg’s cited a study (which they funded!) that compared a breakfast of mini-wheats to a breakfast of . . . water! The F.T.C. decided that claiming a cognitive benefit was deceptive advertising.
5. Pom pomegranate juice advertises: “Cheat death”, “Death defying”, “Drink to prostate health” and “Sometimes good medicine medicine can taste great.” Is it all it claims to be? The F.T.C. says probably not. They point out that Pom has exaggerated or overstated research results and that they also market the juices and supplements as treatments for disease. The legal battle it ongoing, with Pom filing a federal lawsuit against the F.T.C.
Summary – Just as nutritional supplements are not cure-alls and do not compensate for poor eating habits, fancy functional foods probably do not have magical qualities. Some may indeed be healthy, but may not be worth an up-charge relative to more standard (and less expensive) foods. As with so many things in life, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.