Washington, D.C.—Whilst pointing to the growing popularity of functional foods, keynote speakers at two industry conventions held here in late April have warned functional foods and nutraceutical manufacturers to beware the hazards of inaccurate labeling.
Functional foods companies need to understand that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are more closely scrutinising health claims made by functional foods, particularly on the Internet. At one conference, FTC staff attorney Leslie Fair said functional foods health claims are judged by the same standards that apply to all FTC-regulated products.
"We ask two basic questions," she said. "What claims, expressed or implied, do consumers take from an ad, and does the company have solid, competent, reliable scientific evidence to support the claim?"
The FTC has started to crack down on companies that make dubious or misleading claims online. Last year, the agency—along with FDA, Health Canada and state attorneys general—went after dietary supplements making spurious claims. Fair said food manufacturers should "heed the lessons" of such actions.
"What that means for all of us is that Web site content could be subject to regulatory action by FDA if it finds that the information on the site violates the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act," said Cate McGinn, a senior attorney at Kellogg Co. "The bottom line is to make sure that all advertising, labelling and Web site materials comply with all applicable regulatory requirements."
The FDA is increasingly taking the position that if a company promotes or sells its products over the Internet, information provided online can be considered 'labelling' and therefore subject to labelling requirements. Indeed, it issued an advisory to the industry last year, reminding companies of their regulatory obligations.
And Now For the Good NewsThe sudden interest in the category, however, means that functional foods have truly arrived.
Cheryl Toner, associate director of health communications at International Food Information Council (IFIC), told the 25th National Food Policy Conference about the company's latest research on the US functional foods market.
It found that 94 per cent of consumers believe functional foods may reduce the risk of disease, particularly heart disease, and about a third said they add particular foods or ingredients to keep healthy. Sixty three per cent reported eating functional foods in 2002, up from 53 per cent in 1998. The most popular choices were broccoli, fish, fish oil, green/leafy vegetables, oranges/orange juice, carrots, garlic, fibre, milk, oats and tomatoes.
The IFIC surveys show that "consumers believe nutrition plays a great role in maintaining or improving health and strongly believe in the benefits of functional foods," said Toner.
But while consumers are familiar with functional foods, some segments of the population remain unaware of specific benefits, which signals an ongoing need for consumer education, Toner said. For example, only 39 per cent of people with a high school education and 42 per cent of men knew antioxidants may ward off cancer, and only 40 per cent of women knew calcium reduces the risk of osteoporosis.
"Eighty-five per cent of consumers want to learn more about functional foods and their health benefits," said Toner, noting that new science extolling the virtues of specific nutrients was fuelling this interest."