Do functional foods stack up?

"This was once the practice of the little guy in the industry but we see now the largest companies are using the same tactic," says Bruce Silverglade, Center for Science in the Public Interest.

At the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, DC, attorney Bruce Silverglade explains what he says is an alarming trend at the market: the inundation of so-called functional foods.

Functional foods are foods that provide a function other than fuel, like bone-boosting milk or cholesterol-lowering oatmeal. Both have merit, yet Silverglade says some food manufacturers are pushing it too far.

"The FDA is taking the attitude that as long as the company doesn't actually make a claim that would appear on a prescription drug label and upset the prescription drug industry -- and doesn't sell an unsafe product -- it's OK," says Silverglade.

Since 1938, the Food and Drug Administration has allowed the use of what they call "structure function" claims. It is a claim allowed by the FDA if a food can affect a function of the body. At that time, claims were few. However, when Congress permitted dietary supplements to do the same, their sales skyrocketed and many food manufacturers began to play the "claim game."

Some examples you may have seen in the marketplace: Produce touting immunity-enhancing benefits, like Green Giant's Immunity Boost vegetables or Dole's Wildly Nutritious Immunity Blend fruits.

"Vegetables are good for you. But it doesn't make sense to pay extra for a brand name that claims to boost your immunity system," says Silverglade.

Some are also questioning juice with fiber from maltodextrin, claiming to promote digestive function. Welch's Grape Juice with fiber makes that very claim.

"Studies show that maltodextrin really doesn't help your digestive system the way other types of fiber would," says Silverglade.

General Mills, Dole, and Welch's say their foods meet the structure/function criteria, so they stand behind their right to advertise as such.

Silverglade says some of the worst offenders are functional drinks.

"It's really 21st century snake oil," says Silverglade.

"There's absolutely no scientific evidence showing that adding vitamins or minerals to certain foods is going to ward off the flu or cure your cold faster," says dietitian Patricia Bannan. "Fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, lean meats, whole grains ... that's really going to be your best bet in terms of your health."


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