Functional Food Benefits: Fact or Fiction

Functional Food – the food industry term for products that can potentially lower cholesterol, slim your waistline, improve immunity, or regulate your digestive system.  Otherwise known as a marketing strategy for food companies to promote food labels with health or wellness-maintaining properties.  There is nothing wrong with such claims, in fact they’re perfectly legal, however, they must be backed up by at least some credible science.  The problem: some claims, as the New York Times reports, are completely false and misleading.

Examples of recent misleading claims:

  • Quaker Oatmeal Squares cereal proclaims: “Oatmeal helps reduce cholesterol!” We can agree fiber is good for the heart.  But read the smaller print, which the Food and Drug Administration requires, and you’ll find that one serving of Quaker Oatmeal Squares contains only a third of the amount of soluble fiber needed daily to help reduce the risk of heart disease. What the box doesn’t say is that you may have to eat three bowls of cereal daily — 630 calories worth, without milk — to benefit.
  • Welch’s 100% Grape Juice has a red-heart certification from the American Heart Association.  An eight-ounce glass has 36 grams of sugar whereas a regular-sized Snickers has 30….
  • Activia claimed the ability to regulate one’s digestive system within two weeks.  What the fine print didn’t say was that you would have to eat the yogurt at least 3 times a day.  The Federal Trade Commission concluded Dannon exaggerated its science about the yogurt’s effect.  While probiotics in yogurt do indeed promote digestion, many of the company’s scientific studies actually found that the Activia product helped no more than a placebo.
  • A TV ad for Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal claimed that the cereal improved kids’ attentiveness by 20%. This was compared with children who only had water for breakfast.  Enough said.

While no one is saying that these products are unsafe or unhealthy, or that there isn’t science behind them, there is a lot of confusion surrounding the issue.  As nutrition expert Marion Nestle explains it, “this kaleidoscopic array of functional foods on offer, with all those different claims, has left many consumers confused about the products’ actual health value”.  To protect consumers, the FDA, which oversees food labels, has a variety of rules on label claims.  It maintains a list of authentic “health claims” that are backed by generally accepted science and have regulatory pre-approval, such as “diets low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure”.  The more general claims, like “calcium supports strong bones” don’t require agency pre-approval.

In recent years, the FTC has attempted to crack down on these inaccurate claims by filing deceptive marketing complaints against companies such as Kellogg and Dannon.  The FDA, has attempted to protect consumers as well.  However, as Michael Taylor, the Deputy Commissioner for Foods of the FDA explained last year, “once we prove today’s claim is misleading, [marketers] can readily come up with another one tomorrow.  Going after them one-by-one with the legal and resource restraints we work under is a little like playing Whac-a-Mole, with one hand tied behind your back”.

Until then, have a good laugh with this SNL Activia spoof.



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