The hottest trend in the food industry lately is functional food. Although there is not formal definition for the term, its agreed that these are foods that can help reduce the risk of disease due to the presence of specific nutrients.
In general, the best functional foods are also the most unprocessed ones – fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as an example.
However, more and more processed foods are being fortified with nutrients in order to become “functional.” Manufacturers have realized that health sells, and usually commands a higher margin too.
And so we find calcium added to orange juice, vitamin C added to fruit snacks, and breakfast cereals fortified with pretty much the entire alphabet of minerals and vitamins.
OK. In the examples above, they’ve made decent products a bit healthier. But what can manufacturers do with products that at their core are not so healthy? Can a sugary / fatty / salty (take your pick) item be miraculously transformed into something nutritious?
If we’re to judge by the sales of functional foods, sales are growing at a great clip, which means consumers have been convinced that the bag of cheese puffs fortified with omega-3 is really good for them.
An article in the Wall Street Journal recently tackled this topic:
Lillian Cheung, Ph.D, a nutrition professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, [...] points out that adding nutrients to a food can encourage people to perceive it as unequivocally healthy, whether it’s low-fat and fiber-rich oatmeal that’s been fortified or a similarly enhanced bag of potato chips packed with fat and bereft of any naturally occurring nutrients that the oatmeal has. “The fact that brands have gone to the trouble to add this stuff sends an implicit message that the finished product is desirable, and that’s just not always the case,” she says.
“Sports drinks are an example. The sugar they contain is so much worse than the added vitamins. But that information gets obscured.”
What you need to know:
The FDA does not recognize functional foods as a category. Which means it’s a wild west for marketers to sell us stories.
So if it’s too good to be true, it isn’t.
What to do at the supermarket:
Go for foods that are naturally functional. The less a food is processed, the most benefit you’ll reap. For example, get your omega-3 from fish, not a snack bar. If you’re still deficient in a certain nutrient, a fortified product is a good option, but only if at its base it is a nutritious product (non sugary cereals yes, soft drinks – NO).
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