Monday, May 16, 2011

Foods With Benefits, or So They Say

START in Aisle 2, third shelf from the bottom: here is grape juice for your heart. Over to Aisle 4: there are frozen carrots for your eyes.

In Aisle 5: vitamin-packed water for your immune system. In the dairy case: probiotic yogurt for your insides and milk for your brain.

In aisle after aisle, wonders beckon. Foods and drinks to help your heart, lower your cholesterol, trim your tummy, coddle your colon. Toss them into your cart and you might feel better.

Or not. Because this, shoppers, is the question: Are all these products really healthy, or are some of them just hyped?

The answer to that question matters to millions of Americans who are wagering their money and their waistlines on hot new products in the grocery aisles called “functional foods.”

Food giants like Dannon, Kellogg and General Mills don’t claim these products actually prevent or cure diseases. Such declarations would run afoul of federal regulations. Nor do they sell them as medical foods, which are intended to be consumed under a doctor’s supervision.

Rather, food companies market functional foods with health-promoting or wellness-maintaining properties. Such claims are perfectly legal, provided that they are backed up by some credible science.

All those heart-healthy red hearts on your box of Quaker Oats cereal or that can of Planters peanuts? That happy-colon yellow arrow on the tub of Activia yogurt? It’s all part of the marketing of functional food.

Over the past decade, despite all those sales pitches for “natural,” “organic” and “whole” foods, functional food has turned into a big business for Big Food. And more Americans are buying into the functional story. Sales of these foods and beverages totaled $37.3 billion in the United States in 2009, up from $28.2 billion in 2005, according to estimates from the Nutrition Business Journal, a market research firm.

But as sales soar, federal regulators worry that some packaged foods that scream healthy on their labels are in fact no healthier than many ordinary brands. Federal Trade Commission officials have been cracking down on products that, in their view, make dubious or exaggerated claims. Overwhelmed regulators concede that they are struggling to police this booming market, despite recent settlements with makers of brands like Kellogg’s Rice Krispies and Dannon’s Activia, which the authorities say oversold their health benefits.

Consumer advocates and some nutritionists are equally blunt. They say shoppers are being bamboozled by slick marketing. Many people grab products with healthy claims on the front of the package and overlook crucial nutritional information, like calorie counts, in the small print on the back.

“Functional foods, they are not about health,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “They are about marketing.”

Walk through any supermarket, and you’ll see what Ms. Nestle means.

Here in Aisle 2 is a box of Quaker Oatmeal Squares cereal, made by the Quaker Oats Company. The front of the box, in large white print, proclaims: “Oatmeal helps reduce cholesterol!” Scientists generally agree that fiber can be good for your heart. But read the adjacent smaller print, which the Food and Drug Administration requires, and you’ll find that one serving of Quaker Oatmeal Squares contains only a third of the amount of soluble fiber needed daily to help reduce the risk of heart disease. In other words, you may have to eat three bowls of cereal daily — 630 calories’ worth, without milk — to benefit.

Down the aisle is Welch’s 100% Grape Juice, with no fat and emblazoned with a red-heart certification from the American Heart Association. An eight-ounce glass has 36 grams of sugar; a regular-sized Snickers, by comparison, has 30.

No one is saying that these products are unsafe or unhealthy, or that there isn’t science behind them. But nutritionists like Ms. Nestle contend that the kaleidoscopic array of functional foods on offer, with all those different claims, has left many consumers confused about the products’ actual health value. And, in some cases, regulators say, manufacturers are bending, or even breaking, the rules about how they market these products.

“If people can’t rely on even the most trusted food brands to have good science backing up their claims, who can they rely on?” asks Mary K. Engle, the director of the advertising practices division at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington.

Over the last two years, the F.T.C., which oversees food advertising, has filed complaints of deceptive marketing against Kellogg, Dannon and a subsidiary of Nestlé.

None of the companies have admitted wrongdoing. But each has separately settled with the agency, agreeing to certain restrictions on health-related claims.

The agency’s concern, says David C. Vladeck, director of its bureau of consumer protection, is not only that people might be paying more for foods that are no more healthful than other brands. At a time when millions lack health insurance, he also worries that people who buy foods that, for instance, claim to bolster immunity or reduce the risk of prostate cancer might forgo a flu shot or a doctor’s visit.

“If people are going to spend their money for health benefits,” Mr. Vladeck says, “they ought to get them.”

SO what’s a shopper to do?

“This is very confusing to consumers. It’s confusing to a lot of health professionals,” says Wahida Karmally, the director of nutrition at the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at Columbia University Medical Center. “Just because they call it functional, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be good for you.”

Source: New York Times 5/15/11

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