There's echinacea, claimed to boost the immune system, in yogurt, and brain-building DHA oil in infant formula. Even chocolate bars now come with zinc, ginseng and selenium. The days may be over when mothers tell their children that only by eating their vegetables will they grow up big and strong.
Functional foods—foods that provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition, such as reducing the risk of certain diseases—have been the talk of nutritionists and food manufacturers for the past decade. Fruits and vegetables contain naturally occurring nutrients, such as lycopene, sulfides and beta-carotene.
But food manufacturers, trying to improve on Mother Nature, are adding nutrients purported to fight cancer, reduce the risk of heart disease or lower blood pressure—all in the hopes their products, which include everything from dietary supplements to drinks to snacks—will more readily appeal to health-conscious consumers.
The lack of an official definition of "functional foods" leaves much room for interpretation, opening the door to misunderstanding and confusion about what constitutes a healthy food choice.
"The problem is that many foods contain functional components so that most foods can be classified as a functional food," notes Julie Walsh, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "But there are such things as bogus or faux functional foods. If you take a gummy worm and add nutrients to it, it's still a gummy worm. But manufacturers have learned that they can try to make someone feel better about buying candy and chips by adding a nutrient or herbal ingredient."
And that's why consumers, and retailers, should understand that there is a great divide between foods that contain a functional component scientifically proven to fight against disease and promote health, and foods that make a claim regarding health. The Food and Drug Administration thinks so too. At the same time it announced new trans fat labeling requirements, the FDA's Task Force on Consumer Health Information for Better Nutrition launched an initiative that seeks to qualify the health claims food and dietary supplements manufacturers are making.
"This new initiative will better protect consumers from making uninformed or misinformed choices about their diet and nutrition," FDA Commissioner Mark B. McClellan said when the initiative was announced July 10. "The FDA review process for making qualified claims ... will reward companies that make healthier products while more aggressively enforcing the law against companies that appeal to consumers through false and misleading health claims."
As part of the initiative, the FDA set up a four-point grading system—A, B, C, D—which it says it will use to evaluate and rank the scientific evidence backing a manufacturer's health claim. An A grade on its health-claims report card means there is significant scientific agreement about the health claim. Because A-grade claims stem from well-designed studies that follow recognized scientific procedures and principles, the FDA says, they do not require any kind of disclaimer and are considered "unqualified health claims." For instance, a grade A health claim would be that calcium helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
B grades are assigned to those claims for which there is good, but inconclusive, scientific evidence. A grade of C applies to claims for which the evidence is limited and inconclusive, while the D grade is reserved for health claims with little scientific evidence to support them. Health claims graded B, C or D are "qualified health claims" and will require that manufacturers put a disclaimer or other qualifying language on their product packaging.
The problem with the grading system, says the ADA's Walsh, is that it does little to shift the burden of sifting through the health claims from consumers, and now also asks them to be aware of what the A, B, C and D grades mean. After all, a food maker may be able to earn an A grade by including calcium in its beverage products, but does calcium in a highly sweetened chocolate drink really transform that into a health food deserving an A grade? That's the impression consumers might walk away with after glancing at the label, Walsh notes. "You'll see in the beverage category that many manufacturers have added things that normally wouldn't be there—vitamins, herbal ingredients," she observes. "Still, it's basically sugar water. It doesn't make it healthy."
Wendy Reinhardt, manager of health communications for the International Food Information Council, says IFIC has been tracking consumer perceptions of functional foods since 1996. In a February 2000 study, the council found that 93 percent of Americans believe certain foods have health benefits that go beyond basic nutrition and may reduce the risk of disease or other health concerns. At the same time, 33 percent of Americans are adding particular foods or ingredients to their diet to improve or maintain their health—up from 28 percent who were doing so in 1998.
What that tells Reinhardt is that retailers have a responsibility and opportunity to educate consumers about the veracity of the health claims being made. "I would say the real challenge is, How do I lead someone through the store for better health?" says Reinhardt. "From a retailer's perspective, it means keeping up with things—the emerging science that's being covered in the media—and imparting that knowledge in a responsible way to consumers."
Walsh takes it one step further and says naturals and organics retailers should start holding manufacturers accountable for their product claims, and refuse to carry products they feel mislead consumers. "Natural foods retailers could work to set some standards," she says. "The only magic bullets we know of are fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It's not going to be echinacea or ginkgo, because the science isn't sound enough yet to show there is a benefit to these herbal remedies [as ingredients in functional foods.]"
In the meantime, says Walsh, consumers should be proactive about gathering information before they embark on any kind of dietary change they think will improve their health. "You don't have to buy foods that are overly fortified to have a healthy diet. Do what seems sensible—eat a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables."
Connie Guglielmo is a freelance writer and editor in Los Altos, Calif.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 11/p. 26