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Functional Foods Uncovered

From calcium-fortified orange juice to acai-spiked smoothies, functional foods have slowly become a mainstream part of our modern food supply. It seems healthy, natural and organic are not enough anymore as companies are adding additional claims to help differentiate their products in a competitive market place. The Nutrition Business Journal, a trade publication that tracks functional foods, defines functional food as “any modified food or food ingredients that may provide a health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains.” This has become one of the fastest-growing segments of the food industry. But often times, functional food label claims do not tell the whole story of what’s in the product. Ingredients like refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, or artificial ingredients may be hidden behind healthy catch phrases.

The origin of functional foods in the U.S. can be traced back to the 1920’s, when iodine was added to salt to prevent goiters. Credited with starting the current movement, the Japanese government began implementing an official approval system for functional foods in 1991. In Japan, “Food for Specified Health Use” or FOSHU are approved products that make specific health claims on product labels. There were 755 FOSHU approved products in Japan at the end of 2007. In an attempt to capture the market share in healthy foods, many products in the U.S. are being marketed in a similar vein. While there are specific FDA-approved health claims companies can use, most will utilize the loophole of a “structure-or-function claim”, a claim that a food can affect the structure or function of the body. This does not require FDA approval. The reality is most functional foods have not been clinically tested or the claims are loosely supported by clinical data.

When it comes to making food choices these days, many people find themselves in the midst of a marketing circus. This can be seen in the popularity of yogurt and yogurt drinks with added probiotics, juices and teas with added herbs and super foods, and omega-3 enriched table spreads. With companies making alluring and sometimes-outrageous claims, it is ultimately up to the consumer to figure out what is best for them. Therefore, it is imperative to read the Nutrition Facts Label and ingredients list when judging the overall quality of a product. For example, look for naturally processed sweeteners (unrefined cane juice powder, agave, fruit juices, and rice syrup) over chemically processed sweeteners (white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup) and artificial sweeteners. But most importantly, don't forget about nature's "functional foods". Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and quality protein ultimately provide the best support for the structure and function of the body. And best of all, no labels, advertising, or marketing gimmicks are needed!

-Dr. Christine Gonzalez (Integrative PharmD, CHC)