Orange juice and candy with added calciumfor osteoporosis, margarine that lowers cholesterol, salad dressing to fightheart disease. These are among an array of new “functional foods”designed to supercharge an everyday diet. Virtually every major foodmanufacturer and pharmaceutical company has already introduced or is planning tointroduce its own version of functional foods. It’s the fastest-growingsegment of the food industry and estimates are that Americans already spend $10to $20 billion a year, or 5% of their food dollar, on functional foods.
How Naturally Healthful Foods Fit In. Inthe purest sense, functional foods are simply foods and beverages withbiologically active compounds that provide health benefits beyond basicnutrition and may prevent disease, explains Clare Hasler, Ph.D., executivedirector of the Functional Foods for Health program at the University ofIllinois at Urbana-Champaign. Doesn’t that cover all healthful foods?Technically, yes. By definition, it includes whole foods like fruits, vegetablesand whole grains, but more often the term is used to refer to fortified productsor those concocted functional ingredient by functional ingredient.
Food as Medicine. Some functional foodscontain substances previously unknown to scientists. Over the past decade,researchers have identified thousands of biologically active compounds that areneither vitamins nor minerals, but still impart important health benefits. Thosefound in plants are called “phytochemicals” (“phyto” isGreek for plant). Beneficial compounds, such as omega-3 fatty acids andconjugated linoleic acid, have also been identified in animal products likefish, eggs, dairy foods and beef.
It’s apparent that food manufacturersand pharmaceutical giants like Kellogg’s and Mead Johnson see thefood-as-medicine concept as the future of food manufacturing. Indeed, manycompanies now have entire divisions devoted to developing functional foods. Isthat progress?
Pharmafoods or Fakes? Some functionalfoods are merely delivery vehicles for over-the-counter medicine. Somephysicians, for example, now recommend products like Benecol or TakeControl spreads in lieu of prescribed cholesterol-lowering medication. Thatmay be good, because it substitutes a product that contains a less potentsubstance for a powerful, expensive drug. (Hasler goes so far as to predict thatsupermarket aisles of the future may be organized by health condition, such asproducts for heart disease, cancer, menopause or diabetes. We shudder at thethought. After all, eating is supposed to be enjoyable.)
Do other souped-up health foods live up toimplied claims? Many products avoid rigorous Food and Drug Administration rulesby calling themselves dietary supplements rather than food. Supplements areallowed to make general statements, such as “boosts the immunesystem,” “helps maintain proper digestion” and “improvesmood and memory.” Companies are supposed to supply the FDA withdocumentation supporting such claims, but many do not.
Too Much of a Good Thing? The concept ofcreating a functional food from scratch is based on the belief that more of agood thing is better. The government even mandates enrichment and fortificationof some foods to prevent vitamin deficiencies. Examples include vitamin D inmilk, B vitamins and iron in enriched flour, bread and rice, and most recently,folic acid in the same enriched grains.
However, adding nutrients one by one fliesin the face of what we know about the benefits of whole foods. It doesn’tallow for the interaction of nutrients and phytochemicals that occur in nature,which may be essential to good health.
Plus, “certain people may respondadversely to excessive amounts of individual nutrients or phytochemicals intheir diet,” says Beverly Clevidence, Ph.D., of the phytonutrientslaboratory at the United States Department of Agriculture. For example, gettingtoo much iron is clearly dangerous for those with hereditary hemochromatosis(iron-overload disease). And with all the calcium-fortified products now onsupermarket shelves, it’s not impossible to reach the upper limit of 2,500milligrams a day, especially if you also take a calcium supplement.
EN‘sBottom Line. When is a functional food worth buying? If the food doesn’t fitinto one of the basic food groups and isn’t inherently healthy beforefortification, skip it. An exception may be a food like Benecol that you?reusing for a medical condition. If so, consult your physician first.
Eating a diet rich in plant-based foods isyour best bet for good health. Phytochemicals and other functional ingredientsin foods probably work best when eaten together as provided by nature. We arenot against functional foods per se, only if they start crowding real foods outof the diet. After all, even the best futuristic foods can’t make up for apoor diet or an unhealthy lifestyle.
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