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!





   Organic foods are foods that are produced using methods that do not involve modern artificial inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives. With regard to genetic modification, I have explained this misunderstanding previously (see Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods—Fact versus Fiction).


All that certainly sounds lofty enough, but two recent scientific reviews[1] [2]  have disclosed the fact that no scientific evidence supports any benefit whatsoever from such culinary habits.  The weight of the available scientific evidence encountered by these researchers has not shown any real difference between organic and more conventionally grown food in terms of safety, nutritional value, or taste.  Given that the controversy about organic food dates back to the 1950s, it is surprising research has been somewhat sparse since then.

Despite such evidence to the contrary, there is currently a mystique surrounding the proposed health benefits of “organic foods”.

The issue of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics is tangential to the subject of organic foods. There are indeed lower levels of these synthetic agents in organic produce than in conventionally grown equivalents, but does that render them safer to consume? In the review cited above, the authors found no evidence of greater safety of organic food.

One additional caveat about pesticides is that organic farming may employ “organic”, but not synthetic, pesticides, such as a rotenone-pyrethrin mixture, which has not been as well studied as synthetic pesticides. This combination often requires multiple applications and may persist in soil longer than synthetics. Thus, the use of natural pesticides is probably nothing more than an appeal to the naturalistic fantasy. Notwithstanding the need for more intensive research, there is currently no credible evidence, attesting to the superior safety of organic products.

Human exposure to pesticides should always be minimized. This is easily accomplished by washing all produce thoroughly prior to consumption. Although direct comparisons of the presence of pesticide residue in organic produce vs. thoroughly washed conventional produce are lacking, residue levels are generally below safety limits, and can be lowered further by washing. This subject, however, requires continued monitoring and further research.

In conclusion, I would suggest avoiding the organic label, since these products lack clear benefits and are generally more expensive.

[1] Dangour AD, Lock K., Hayter A, et al. Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods. Am. J. Clin. Nutrition. 2010; 92:203.

[2] Smith-Spangler, et al. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives. Annals of Internal Medicine, 2012:157:348-366.