Today the fastest growing category in the food industry is so-called ‘functional food” – fortified food that’s supposed to reduce your risk of disease or boost your chances of optimal health, according to the marketers. There is some support for adding certain elements to standard foods, such as calcium, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and certain vitamins. Overall, such altered foods account for $20 to $30 billion in annual sales, says PriceWaterhouseCoopers. And sales of fortified foods are predicted to grow at an annual rate of 8.5 to 20 percent, much more than the 1 to 4 percent forecast for the food industry overall.
So, what’s the catch? In most cases, the health claims accompanying these products are based on flimsy or absent facts. Unfortunately, the industry seems to equate health claims with those promoting general products such as household cleansers, etc. We all know that such commercial claims are either wildly over hyped or simply bald-faced lies, but serious consequences seldom result from having a dingy floor or clothing that bears a faint shade of gray. Obviously, sloppy labeling does not carry over to issues of health.
Fortunately for all of us, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t recognize functional food as an actual food category. As defined by the FDA’s Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, products with claims of treating specific diseases are considered to be drugs and therefore must meet the agency’s rigorous regulatory requirements, including proof that they are safe and effective for their intended use. Thus if manufacturers wish to claim that its products have health-promoting properties, they must have credible science to back it up.
For example, the maker of POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice and POMx liquid supplement maintains that it has scientific proof to support the claim that its products prevent or treat heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction. Now anyone in his/her right mind must question the validity of such claims. Happily, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cracked down on the company for making what it calls false and unsubstantiated claims. “Any consumer who sees POM Wonderful products as a silver bullet against disease has been misled,” says David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “When a company touts scientific research in its advertising, the research must squarely support the claims made. Contrary to POM Wonderful’s advertising, the available scientific information does not prove that POM Juice or POMx effectively treats or prevents these illnesses.” In response, the company has filed a federal lawsuit contending that the agency is overstepping its authority by setting new standards for advertising food and dietary supplements. I seriously doubt that they can make much of a case.
In response to industrial lobbying for the right to promote the benefits of their products, Congress passed some ill-advised legislation: the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act forced the FDA to permit health claims on food packages, and in 1994 they passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which made it easier to put health claims on vitamins, minerals, and herbal products.
“We expected to see nutritional supplements or dietary supplements making health claims,” says Mary K. Engle, associate director of the FTC’s Advertising Practices division. “But then, about five years ago, we started to see those kinds of claims on foods—claims like ‘metabolism-enhancing’ and ‘immune-boosting,’ or something having to do with brain health or heart health.”
More recently, there have been claims about digestive health. For example, claims by Dannon that a daily serving of Activia yogurt could help with constipation caught the FTC’s attention in 2010, and the agency accused the company of deceptive marketing practices. Dannon said it had scientific proof, but regulators concluded that many of its studies actually found that Activia was no more helpful than a placebo. Also, the probiotics (a type of healthful bacteria) in Activia might help digestion, but only if the yogurt is eaten three times a day—something not mentioned in the ads or on the packaging. Dannon eventually settled with the FTC, but admitted no wrong-doing.
What’s a health-conscious shopper to do?
“Know thyself,” says Elizabeth Rahavi, R.D., director of health and wellness at the International Food Information Council Foundation, an industry group. “Consumers can ask: ‘Is this a food that I would commonly consume?’ Often the benefit of a functional food comes through repeated consumption.”
If any product—food, supplement, or otherwise—is accompanied by the following label: “This treatment has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease”, run the other direction; it is almost certainly a scam!
If you’re still not sure about a given food, check the website of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the IFIC Foundation to see if a product’s claims are backed up by credible research. And don’t just read marketing claims; look at nutrition panels and ingredient lists.
Above all, always be skeptical and, whenever possible, avoid excessive expenditures!