Barbara Middleton of Big Sky, Mont., considers herself reasonably savvy when it comes to nutrition. "I think I'm probably like most people who have a passing knowledge of good fats and lycopene and other healthy substances," says Middleton, a mother of two. When she goes shopping, she tends to buy foods fortified with green tea and omega-3s. "I think, well, it probably can't hurt me—and maybe it will help—so why not choose this item over one that doesn't have something added to it? Especially when I'm buying for my kids—kids don't eat enough good stuff, so any way you can get it in them is good."
Like Middleton, many consumers in America are interested in the good stuff. In a survey released by the International Food Information Council last fall, more than 80 percent of the respondents said they consume or were interested in consuming foods and beverages for health benefits. Sixty-five percent cited the healthfulness of a product as a factor that influenced their decision to buy it.
That's good news for those who manufacture nutraceuticals, or foods with added health benefits. "More people are looking for ways to get an extra boost to their health without having to make a major change in their diet," says Susan Kundrat, a dietitian in Urbana, Ill., and president of Nutrition on the Move. "That's why these foods are so appealing," says Kundrat, who regularly advises shoppers at Strawberry Fields, a natural foods store in Urbana.
Recent research by The Hartman Group found that consumers are most likely to purchase nutraceuticals when the health benefits of the active ingredients are well understood.
Two of the top five fastest-growing ingredients are flaxseed and DHA, according to SPINS, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm for the natural products industry. That jibes with the numbers that Nature's Path, manufacturer of organic cereals and other breakfast products, has seen. "Of our 30 top-selling products, 12 of those spots are taken by our products that contain flaxseed," says Maria Emmer-Aanes, director of marketing for Nature's Path.
While Nature's Path and other manufacturers have been making cereals with flaxseed for several years, consumers can now find DHA in products like soymilk and, most recently, yogurt, with the launch of Stonyfield Farm's YoMommy.
The challenge for manufacturers is to make sure the ingredients meet their company's standards and philosophy. To that end, some manufacturers do extensive testing. Nature's Path, for example, sends someone to inspect the suppliers' farms, and also employs research-and-development scientists to test the products as they are being manufactured. "We triple- and quadruple-check our ingredients for quality," says Emmer-Aanes, who also notes that the products are tested at the development stage to check whether a serving contains the stated amount of the ingredient it claims to have.
Stonyfield Farms used a third-party analytical lab when it was developing its line of YoCalcium and YoMommy yogurts to make sure the calcium and DHA levels met the packages' claims throughout the products' shelf life (YoCalcium promises 50 percent of the recommended daily allowance for calcium—versus 30 percent claimed by other yogurts). The lab continues to test the products to make sure they live up to their claims, according to Stonyfield's R&D team.
But are consumers really doing themselves a favor by buying foods that are fortified with flaxseed and DHA? "I tell my clients to make sure the food is healthy to begin with," Kundrat says. "And then they should ask themselves, 'Is it a food I would eat anyway even if it didn't have a functional nutrient?' If the answer is yes, then I advise them to see if they can determine how much of the nutrient it has. If a cereal has a teaspoon of flax, then that's even better."
Consumers should be aware that people differ in their abilities to absorb flaxseed, so it will provide omega-3 benefits for some, but not everyone, says Roger Clemens, an adjunct professor of pharmacology at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy. And he's skeptical about other ingredients like green tea and açai. In the case of açai, he says, the evidence of its effects on humans is still theoretical.
"The bottom line is that these foods do no harm. But the expectation is that they will do a lot of good, and many foods don't meet these expectations. Nutrition just doesn't work that fast; you could drink green tea every day for a year but still not change your cancer risk," he says.
If consumers face challenges in weeding out the hype, so do retailers. Vitamin Cottage, a chain of natural products stores in Colorado and New Mexico, has a dedicated committee that approves or rejects products according to specific standards, says Karen Falbo, the chain's nutritional program coordinator. The committee bases its standards mainly on ingredients; it rejects foods with synthetics, high-fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils and MSG, among other ingredients. "For packaged foods, we carry the highest quality rather than the biggest fad," Falbo says. For example, Vitamin Cottage won't carry products that have synthetic ingredients, like juices fortified with synthetic vitamin E. The chain also employs in-house nutritionists who can educate both the shoppers and the stores' employees. "Our nutritionists can help shoppers evaluate a label to see if a food with a certain additive is worth the money or whether the shopper can get that additive elsewhere," Falbo says.
At the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, N.Y., the process is similar. "For certain foods—breads with calcium propionate, for example—we rely on the guidelines from the Center for Science and Public Interest," says Joe Holtz, the co-op's general manager. "I'm not a lab. I can't test every food, so I rely on [them]. And we carry things from reliable companies, like Eden, which we know have good quality control.
"Our first reaction to a product is not to buy it," Holtz says, explaining that the co-op is short on space, and carrying new products means that it has to stop carrying others. Instead, he listens to the co-op's 13,000 members. "We let our shoppers lead the way—if our customers keep asking for a product, then we get it in."
So what should consumers look for? "It's better to get nutrients from a whole-foods diet than through processed foods," Kundrat says. "Instead of eating a fortified cereal every day, try eating oatmeal a couple of times a week and adding some walnuts for the omega-3s."
For Clemens, the answer is simple: "Every change we make in our lifestyle helps us. But what we need is a variety of nutrients in our diets, as well as balance and moderation."
Linda Rodgers is a Hoboken, N.J.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 3/p. 88,90