The functional foods industry took another hit in the popular media this month with an editorial appearing in Scientific American (SA) that calls for increased regulation of food manufacturers and marketable health claims. NBJ tracked the functional food industry at $37 billion in 2009 sales, up 3% annually. Functional foods continues to account for the largest overall share of nutrition industry sales—35% in 2009—with 89% of these sales occurring through mass-market retail channels.
The editors at SA point toward 17 warning letters issued in March of this year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as evidence of growing momentum to prevent science-based health claims without adequate science to back them up. Cease-and-desist orders levied against General Mills (for cholesterol-lowering claims on Cheerios packaging) and Redco Foods (for anti-cancer claims on green tea packaging) provide further ammunition for this trend toward stricter scientific standards. "Although health claims for foods may appear to be authoritative," said the SA editors, "in many cases science does not support them and the government does not endorse them. Not only do these products, many of which are nutritionally bereft, fail to deliver on their promises, but they may also give consumers a false sense of security that discourages them from taking more effective measures to attain wellness, such as exercise or medication."
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) gives SA a better regulatory model, one that requires companies to meet standards closer to drugs than food before making a health claim on packaging. If companies were required to prove their claims to FDA before selling product, U.S. supermarket shelves might look dramatically different. Since 2006, EFSA has rejected 80% of the 900 claims that have come across its desk, according to SA. Many consumer advocates see the FDA's current efforts in regulating claims as underfunded, inadequate, and constantly in catch-up mode as the agency pursues violators with product already in stores.
NBJ Bottom Line
While calls for increased regulation of the nutrition industry are nothing new, and while the editors at SA focus their argument on functional foods, we can't help but see dietary supplements waiting in the wings. EFSA has given the green light to scant few health claims over the past years, and in an environment of mounting food-safety concerns and consumer suspicion over aggressive advertising tactics, EFSA's success at tightly controlling the health claims process seems comforting to a growing chorus of voices. Industry, as a rule, is not one of those voices, but you can be sure they hear the volume getting louder and louder.
Related NBJ links: