More and more we are confronted at the grocery store with “functional foods” that manufacturers claim will enhance our chances for optimal health, or reduce our risk of disease. These products represent the fastest-growing category in the food industry. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics believes scientific research linking a good diet to a lower incidence of disease, as well as rising health-care costs are driving the demand for these foods.  The FDA does not identify functional food as a food category.  In fact, the FDA’s Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act states that products with claims that they treat or alleviate disease must be considered drugs with proof they are effective and safe. Manufacturers who want to tout their products for their health benefits must have plausible science to back it up.

Consumer Reports OnHealth says that Cheerios Toasted Whole Grain Oat Cereal was warned by the FDA in 2009 that its claim the cereal was “clinically proven to help lower cholesterol” was illegal… only a drug maker could claim such health benefits.  This matter is still pending.  POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice has claimed scientific proof that its product prevents or treats heart disease, as well as other conditions.  The FTC came down on the company for making what it called false claims.  “Any consumer who sees POM Wonderful products as a silver bullet against disease has been misled” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.  Another example of functional food catching the attention of the FTC is Activia yogurt by Dannon.  Dannon claimed that a single serving of Activia can help with constipation.  While Dannon said it had scientific proof, studies by regulators found that Activia was no better than a placebo.  Also, the probiotics found in Activia which may help with digestion were found to be beneficial only if the yogurt is eaten three times a day… not mentioned by Dannon either on the packaging or in ads. Eventually, Dannon settled with the FTC, but did not admit to wrong-doing.

When Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994 new promises by manufacturers began sprouting up.  It became 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, director of the FTC’s Advertising Practices.  “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.”

Food that is healthy for us does not need to have labeling on it telling us it’s nutritious.  In fact, Marion Nestle, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University says “I always advise buying real foods, not products, and stay away from foods that overstate their health benefits.”        Consumer Reports  ONHealth    May 2012

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