Food for thought: Functional foods all hype?

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Whether you’re in an all-natural foods store or the ubiquitous big-chain grocery store, you’ll find health claims on all kinds of foods. Are they really true, or are they all hype? According to a lengthy article in Sunday’s The New York Times, these so-called “functional foods” more likely fall under the latter category. Times columnist Natasha Singer neatly dissects the marketing tactics of the food industry trying to peddle the health benefits of functional foods. Clearly, the public is buying it — literally and figuratively: in 2009, the sales from functional foods amounted to $37.5 billion, up from $28.2 billion in 2005. New York University professor of food studies and public health Dr. Marion Nestle, however, contends that these products “are not about health. They are about marketing” and are often no healthier than ordinary brands. Yet, such health claims can still meet legal standards even if they are based on weak or non-existent science. Mary K. Engle, the director of the advertising practices division at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, asks The Times, “If people can’t rely on even the most trusted food brands to have good science back up their claims, who can they rely on?”

It is important to note, however, that certain fortified foods, such as Vitamin D milk, iodized salt, and folate-supplemented cereals contain additives that have actually been proven to promote health. Such products are distinct from functional foods, which make dubious and unproven health claims.

While ACSH's Dr. Elizabeth Whelan generally agrees that functional foods’ so-called health benefits lack scientific merit, she noticed that one of the products shown in the photo accompanying the Times article — Benecol — actually does make a legitimate health claim. “ACSH investigated Benecol’s claim to lower cholesterol when consumed in reasonable quantities and found that it met ACSH standards for being a truly functional food.”

The article also illuminates a very important concern with regard to these products: Consumer expectations that functional foods may eliminate the need to seek medical care come at a time when millions lack adequate health insurance. Similarly, ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross believes that the functional food industry misleads the public about health in much the same way that the organic food industry does.