‘Functional foods’ can encompass false promises - Your West Valley News: Columns

‘Functional foods’ can encompass false promises

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E. Kresent Thuringer

Posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 9:43 am

Functional foods is a hazy term that magazine articles and news reports tout for their benefits.

These benefits claim everything from reducing cholesterol to preventing conditions such as heart attacks and cancer.

Supermarkets sell plenty of breakfast cereals, yogurts, nut butters and more with health benefits proclaimed in big bold letters on their packaging. However, these are modified foods that may or not necessarily be functional foods.

In the first place, all foods are functional when they provide physiological benefits such as protein for muscle repair, carbohydrates for energy, or vitamins and minerals for cell maintenance.

But here is the rub: In the 1980s, Japanese governmental bigwigs created this genre called “functional foods.”

The classification included additional health benefits above and beyond those of standard nutrition. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration does not have a regulatory category for “functional foods,” although professional nutrition organizations define such as “foods that contain additional health benefits that may reduce the risk of diseases and//or promote good health.”

Actual functional foods include:

• Conventional foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and cold water fish (salmon and sardines are two types);

• Modified foods like orange juice, cereals and yogurts;

• Medical foods, including special formulations of foods and drinks for specific health conditions;

• Foods for special dietary use such as infant formulas and hypoallergenic kinds.

Since the United States has no legal or governmental definition, consumers are left to evaluate a health food’s claim, many of which are merely used as marketing tools. The “proof of the pudding” is not on the front of a package, but on the back.

For example, if the front says it is a whole grain product, whole grains must be first on the ingredients list found on the back, usually in small print.  

But another confusing category is “Food Fortification,” as seen on labels that tout the addition of vitamins and nutrients.

Food fortification or enrichment is the process of deliberately adding essential trace elements and vitamins to various food products whether or not the food naturally contains them. This may be just the manufacturer’s choice to provide extra nutrients in hopes of selling more.

Food fortification also can be the legitimate result of a public health policy aiming to reduce the number of people with dietary deficiencies in various populations, including the Third World.

Diets that lack variety can be deficient in certain nutrients. Often the staple foods in a region can be lacking due to poor soil, or due to the inherent inadequacy in the normal diet. In such cases, the addition of micronutrients to staples and condiments can prevent large-scale deficiency diseases.

Food fortification is an international strategy developed by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United States. Examples of commonly fortified foods found among others in the United States are iodized salt, folic acid, niacin, vitamin D and fluoride.

E. Kresent Thuringer is a registered member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is in private practice as a weight management specialist and medical nutrition therapist.

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