Functional Foods

August 4, 2000

By Michael Jessen

Chewing gum that improves your memory, margarine that lowers your cholesterol, tea that mends your mood, corn chips that help you relax.

Welcome to the wonderful world of functional foods -- the latest dietary trend that seems destined to make eating more of an intellectual exercise than a pleasure. A trip to the grocery store of the future may become like a trip to the pharmacy today.

All because many consumers feel eating healthy is too time consuming and/or expensive. In a survey completed for the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Information Council, many consumers reported they are too busy to give much thought to planning their meals in advance. "They will focus on eating better tomorrow or the day after -- or whenever things slow down," writes Joan Murray, a foodservice consultant.

Functional foods have been around since the 1920's when iodine was added to salt to prevent goiter. Now nutritional science has advanced to the stage where certain processed foods are promoted for their role in reducing disease risk.

"Within 10 to 15 years, it is conceivable that people will be able to get their blood pressure medication within a food," says Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. "We'll be able to put medicine in a hot dog bun or aspirin in cake batter." Grabowski cites surveys by his industry indicating consumers prefer to get extra nutrients in their food rather than from supplements.

Food companies are leaping on the bandwagon to give us foods to slow aging, reduce the risk of cancer, and improve immunity to diseases, like the common cold. They've already marketed foods containing St. John's wort (to combat depression), Echinacea (to reduce the symptoms of colds), Phosphatidyl serine and Ginkgo biloba (to improve memory function) and Kava kava (to promote relaxation). A cynic might say their interest is primarily monetary. While the ordinary food market grows at about 1 to 3% annually, the functional foods market has been estimated as growing at 10 to 15% for the last couple of years. Currently producing revenues of about $16 billion annually, some analysts believe the sky's the limit for the functional foods market.

Functional foods are generally defined as a food, consumed as part of a regular diet, which demonstrates physiological benefits or reduces the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions. They are often confused with the term "nutraceutical," which is a product isolated or purified from foods and sold in medicinal forms not associated with food.

In Canada, functional foods are not regulated and manufacturers cannot put health claims on food packages or in advertisements. Despite the lack of marketing of these foods, a National Institute of Nutrition study published in May found that 51% of Canadians are very interested in learning more about food ingredients that go beyond basic nutrition. The study also found that Canadians know much less about functional foods than Americans.

In addition to meeting consumer interest, legitimate health claims on functional foods would be a cost-effective way to improve the health of Canadians and help the overburdened healthcare system, says Bruce Holub, a professor in the Department of Human Biology and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph. "The system cannot depend on prescription drugs," he adds.

"Food companies can play a role in influencing nutrition and health by turning science into real world applications," says Loretta DiFransesca, senior manager of nutrition research and scientific affairs at Kellogg Canada Inc. At least Kellogg has evidence to show that psyllium added to one of its cereals helps to lower cholesterol.

"Ninety-five percent of functional foods haven't been clinically tested and are making claims unsupported by clinical data," says Steven DeFelice, chairman of the Foundation of Innovation in Medicine in Cranford, New Jersey. The U.S. General Accounting Office recently issued a report calling for the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to be amended "to require makers of functional foods to meet the same requirements that currently apply to dietary supplements." Unlike food additives or drugs, the herbs and other ingredients in functional foods or supplements don't have to undergo tests to see if they cause cancer, birth defects, liver toxicity, or any other serious problem.

In a report on functional foods, the Center for Science in the Public Interest states bluntly: "if governments do not require functional ingredients to be proven effective (and safe) before they are added to the food supply, if claims are not required to be adequately substantiated, if functional ingredients are simply added to foods high in fat, cholesterol, sodium, or sugar, then dubious functional foods may merely amount to 21st Century quackery."

The Institute for Applied Ecology in Germany in the January 2000 Genetic Engineering Newsletter Special Issue 2: Functional Foods concluded: "In total it is doubtful if -- in the complex area of nutrition and the impact on human health -- a one-cause-one-effect approach can lead to satisfying results. The reduction of food to single, easy to segregate compounds is an approach which meets Life Science Industry but does not meet the reality of the complex interaction and co-operation between food and its human consumers." In the issue's preface, the Institute stated: "Functional foods produced with the help of genetic engineering methods are regarded as a way to obtain public acceptance for this technology."

The British group Corporate Watch is also worried that functional foods are merely the forerunner of a new "second generation" of genetically modified crops that express traits delivering apparent benefits to the consumer -- unlike, as with the "first generation", delivering only producer benefits. In a recent briefing paper, Corporate Watch says the big biotech companies like Monsanto, Novartis, AstraZeneca, Dow Chemical, DuPont, and Savia are researching products such as fruits and vegetables with "improved" taste, longer shelf-life, and healthier fats. Both Quaker Oats and General Mills have stated that they are involved in joint ventures with pharmaceutical companies to "enhance foods and devise products with health benefits".

So-called "golden" rice has a higher vitamin A content and is touted to help prevent blindness in millions of children in developing countries. Currently only produced in the laboratory, the rice contains snippets of DNA borrowed from bacteria and daffodils.

Corporate Watch would like to redirect some of the millions of dollars spent on functional food research into true sustainable development -- promoting locally appropriate and ecologically benign agriculture.

What's wrong with adding extracts, fibre, herbs, and vitamins to foods that don't ordinarily contain them? Maybe nothing says the Center for Science in the Public Interest, if research shows that they're safe and that they work. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee of either. It might be better to remember the old adage "An apple a day keeps the doctor away."

ONE SMALL STEP - A healthy diet is a balanced diet. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and low-fat milk and yogurt are Nature's functional foods. They are packed with nutrients or phytochemicals that may cut the risk of cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, eye disease, and other health problems. Functional foods may produce allergic reactions or food/drug/supplement interactions. Let your doctor know if you are eating functional foods. Above all, read packaged food labels carefully before purchasing.

RESOURCES - Although oriented to a mainly British audience, "The New Foods Guide" by John Elkington and Julia Hailes is a fascinating read about GM foods, functional foods, and new organic foods that are here or coming. Victor Gollancz published it in 1999. "Genetic Engineering, Food, and Our Environment" by Luke Anderson is the ideal book about genetic engineering for the general reader. Chelsea Green Publishing Company published it in 1999. The Center for Science in the Public Interest's Nutrition Action Healthletter about functional foods is available at and its report "Functional Foods: Public Health Boon or 21st Century Quackery?" is available at The Corporate Watch briefing paper is available at A summary of The National Institute of Nutrition survey of Canadian consumer awareness of and attitudes toward functional foods is available at A summary of a Health Canada policy paper entitled Nutraceuticals/Functional Foods and Health Claims on Foods is available at Genetic Engineering Newsletter Special Issue 2: Functional Foods is available at A web site with more than 30 links to other sites about food engineering, biotechnology, and functional foods can be found at An article entitled "Designer Foods the next generation" by Linda Armstrong is at "The Underfed and Overfed" by Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil (World Watch magazine July/August 2000) points to a critical need for better distribution -- and healthier utilization -- of available food supplies. Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures Summer 2000 issue is all about food and agriculture.

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