At the grocery store, you reach for your favorite brand of orange juice when you notice a new formula on the shelf emblazoned with a bright red banner. "New and improved!" it screams. "Now with echinacea!" You're not sure exactly what echinacea is, but your best friend swears by its magical cold and flu-fighting abilities. Somewhat skeptical, you check the price. The fortified OJ costs a little more, but you decide that as health insurance goes, that's a pretty cheap price to pay. As long as it tastes as good as the original, you probably don't give it a second thought.
The truth is, you should. That herbal OJ is an example of the growing crop of "functional foods" crowding grocery-store shelves and confusing consumers. Although there's no legal or official definition, Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), says the trade term defines functional foods as any consumable that contains any ingredients intended to provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition. This includes foods to which herbs or supplements have been added to allegedly enhance nutritional value or to promote health effects of naturally occurring ingredients, such as the lycopene in tomatoes.
This isn't about eating for energy or even longevity; the foods in question claim to boost immune system function, improve memory and concentration and even ward off depression.
Fortunately, most experts feel that manufacturers are adding such negligible amounts of the allegedly healthful ingredients in question that the probable result is that they will have no effect at all. Even if the food product contains a precisely regulated herbal dose, many medicinal herbs must be taken for several weeks before any effect can be seen. In these cases, you will simply have wasted your money. Still, it is possible to overdose on certain vitamins and minerals (including iron, vitamin A and chromium). So if the majority of your diet is made up of superenriched foods, you could be putting yourself at risk.
Pushing for bans on false claims
The CSPI, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, is working to protect consumers from questionable ingredients and misleading claims. The organization has filed numerous complaints with the Food and Drug Administration urging that functional ingredients be proven safe and that label claims be approved prior to marketing. They've also asked for a ruling that would prevent manufacturers from marketing functional foods as dietary supplements to escape FDA regulations for food products. "The laws are full of phrases that aren't well defined or understood," admits Christine Lewis, Ph.D., director of the office of nutritional products, labeling and dietary supplements of the FDA. "It's our job to disprove the manufacturers' claims," she adds. "That can be difficult to do."
Lewis insists that the FDA is "very interested in the issues that the CSPI has raised and will be stepping up efforts to ensure that ingredients are safe and labels are truthful and accurate." Until an official mandate is issued, caution is advised.
Don't believe everything you read. From the Center for Science in the Public Interest, here's a list of products that may not be the overachievers they claim to be:
Tribal Tonics These ginseng-, kava-, echinacea- and guarana-infused green teas are "designed to restore, revitalize and enhance well-being." Manufacturers have labeled them as supplements to avoid the stricter regulations required to market a food product. This is a gray area. The CSPI's Bruce Silverglade says, "The Food and Drug Administration stops it some of the time, but not always. Also, enforcement isn't a top priority for the FDA."
Brain Gum This chewing gum contains phosphatidyl serine, a fatlike substance extracted from soybeans. The product, which claims to "improve concentration," is sold as a supplement so it doesn't have to comply with FDA rules governing foods.
HeartBar This L-arginine-fortified snack bar's label claims that it can be used "for the dietary management of vascular disease." (Arginine is an amino acid required to produce nitric oxide, a blood-vessel dilator.) It's labeled as a medical food for use under a physician's supervision to circumvent FDA pre-market health-claim rules.
Heinz Ketchup Ads boast that lycopene in ketchup "may help reduce the risk of prostate and cervical cancer." The company only makes the claim in ads and not on labels because the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising, doesn't require pre-market substantiation of such claims, while such a claim on the food label would not be allowed by the FDA due to inadequate research.
Campbell's V8 Juice Labels state that antioxidants in the product "may play an important role in slowing changes that occur with normal aging," a claim based on preliminary scientific evidence. The juice is also high in sodium, which promotes high blood pressure in sodium-sensitive individuals, a condition that becomes more prevalent with aging.
Buyer beware: 7 problems with functional foods
1. The industry is still unregulated. "Food manufacturers are adding nutrients and botanicals to food willy-nilly," says Mary Ellen Camire, Ph.D., professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine. In many cases, they're not looking at whether the ingredients can be utilized by the body in that form, or even if they're harmful or beneficial. (One notable exception is makers of calcium-fortified orange juice: Because calcium is absorbed better when taken with vitamin C, this makes perfect nutritional sense.)
2. There are no Recommended Daily Allowances. "Medicinal herbs can certainly complement conventional medicine," says the CSPI's Bruce Silverglade, "but they don't belong in food. When you buy corn chips with kava, you have no way of knowing how much of the herb you're getting. Kava has a sedative effect. What if a child ate the whole bag?"
3. If it looks like a candy bar... Packing snacks with herbs and alleged nutrients is "a marketing gimmick to get people to eat junk food," Camire says.
4. Playing doctor can get you in trouble. Some of the herbs in question are designed to treat health conditions that the consumer can't and shouldn't evaluate on her own. "Saint Johnswort has been shown to be useful in treating depression," Silverglade says. "How do you know if you're just down or clinically depressed? Should you be eating superfortified soup or seeing a psychiatrist?"
5. A potato-chip binge can endanger more than your waistline. We presume that anything in our fridge is safe to eat, but that's not the case with these foods. "If you're going to take medicinal herbs, take them in supplement form and consult your doctor regarding possible drug interactions," Silverglade urges. "Consuming food is a poor way to get a proper dose of medicine."
6. Two wrongs don't make a right. "You can't use fortified foods to compensate for dietary indiscretions," Camire says.
7. Once is not enough. Experts suspect most herbal-enriched formulas don't contain enough of the active ingredients to have any effect. Even if they did, medicinal herbs often must be taken for several weeks before benefits kick in.