The FDA Rules: The Function in Foods
by Thea Deley

cereal If your morning glass of orange juice contained calcium, or your lunchtime salad dressing boasted vitamin E, or perhaps your midafternoon snack bar supplied ginseng, you ingested nutraceuticals today. Surprised?

Welcome to the next fad in nutrition: functional foods. This new food category helps you, the busy consumer, get your RDA of vitamins and minerals in a convenient way and can also help you ward off potential health problems. Paul Lachance, Ph.D., executive director of the Nutraceuticals Institute at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., defines nutraceuticals as "naturally derived, bioactive compounds that have disease-preventing, health-promoting or medicinal properties."

You can take nutraceuticals three ways: as a whole food, a dietary supplement or a functional food. Let's say you wanted to add to your diet allicin, the compound in garlic scientists believe promotes cardiovascular health. You might eat a clove of raw garlic (whole food), take a capsule containing powdered garlic (dietary supplement), or sip a soup fortified with allicin (functional food).

"A functional food has some health benefit that goes beyond the basic nutrition of that food," says Mary Mulry, Ph.D., technical consultant for the natural products industry and president of Boulder, Colo.-based Foodwise Inc. "This is food designed for a specific purpose or formulated for particular groups." Registered dietitian Molly Lori, M.P.H., works for Clif Bar Inc., in Berkeley, Calif., creating lines of functional foods products geared for specific types of people. "We look at a population group and see trends as to which vitamins and minerals they're not getting enough of," she explains, "and then we address those concerns in one neat little package."

Lachance estimates that 80 percent of Americans don't eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. "We wonder why we're not healthy in this country," he says. "We don't eat healthy in the first place." Corie Abbs, advertising/ marketing coordinator for Hero Nutritional Products in San Clemente, Calif., points out, "Kids hate vegetables. Getting kids to eat their vegetables ? even adults, for that matter ? is difficult." In the past, vitamin and herb supplements rounded out our diets. But as Abbs says, "It's hard to get kids to eat vitamins, too, especially if they smell or taste like medicine." Lori agrees and believes that's why functional foods were invented in the first place. "With our active, on-the-go lifestyles," she says, "individuals are demanding foods that give them a health benefit in addition to convenience."

Beefing It Up
How do manufacturers like Clif Bar and Hero create functional foods products? There are a number of ways:

  • Increase the concentration of a natural component (for example, increasing the isoflavones naturally occurring in soybeans for soy milk)
  • Add a component that's not normally present (for example, enhancing orange juice with calcium)
  • Replace a bad component with a beneficial one (for example, substituting trans-fatty acids in margarine with beneficial omega-3 fatty acids; or
  • Improve the availability or stability of a beneficial food component (for example, adding inulin to a snack bar to improve mineral absorption). ("Concepts in Functional Foods: A European Perspective," by Marcel B. Roberfroid, Nutrition Today, July 1999, vol. 34.)

"People look to these products as alternatives to taking supplements," Mulry says. "As a particular replacement for dietary supplementation, functional foods have some appeal because the form is familiar." Mulry seems to be right ? people swallowed $12.8 billion in functional foods and beverages in 1998. If we throw in dietary supplements, the combined nutraceuticals market grew at a compounded annual rate of 10.4 percent between 1994 and 1998. It won't stop here, either. Forecasts for the industry in 2003 peak at $27.5 billion ? another 8.3 percent annual growth rate ("Datamonitor Survey of U.S. Nutraceutical Market: Executive Summary," Datamonitor Report on U.S. Nutraceutical Market, 1999).

"I think functional foods represent the next boom in applied nutrition," says Chris Noonan, business development manager for Hero Nutritional Products. "There are so many areas to go [into] with functional foods; it's really in its infancy. The delivery form, like candy or drinks or bars, is magical." A few of the familiar yet magical forms functional foods take include iced teas that boost immunity, chips that improve mood, margarines that lower cholesterol and snack bars that ease PMS symptoms.

While functional foods are just beginning to take shape, they're not a new phenomenon, nor are they limited to natural foods. "The name might be new," says Mindy Green, director of education for the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colo., "but fortified foods have been around for awhile." The FDA requires fortification of some foods, and has for years, such as fortifying milk with vitamins A and D, or breads and cereals with niacin, iron, thiamin, riboflavin and folic acid. More than 10 years ago, the National Cancer Institute created its "Designer Foods" program, which takes proven anticancer ingredients and researches ways to boost them in foods ("Foods that Fight Off Cancer: What Science Knows Today," PDR Family Guide to Nutrition & Health, 1999).

The Key Ingredient?
Research continues, but scientists don't always know which particular compound is responsible for a specific purported health benefit. "It's hard to narrow it down to one compound," Lachance explains. "Take vitamin C ? it's a stab in the dark. There's 4,000 flavonoids in food, so you've got to be a pretty damn good guesser as to which flavonoid is the one responsible for the health benefit." Not only that, but it's not always clear if the health benefit is the result of a particular food or a combination of foods. That's why Green, Lori and Lachance all agree that eating a well-balanced diet remains the key to good health, even with the advent of enhanced foods.

If you do decide to supplement your diet with functional foods and beverages, particularly if you're using them for health benefits, make sure you know the amount of a nutraceutical you're actually taking in. Read the label ? how much of a phytochemical or botanical does the product contain? Does it tell you, or does it just list ingredients?

Even if a product's label tells you how much of a botanical it contains, say 25 mg of Panax ginseng root, it may not tell you what percent of the phytochemical ginsenoside it contains. (Scientists believe ginsenoside gives ginseng its tonic properties.) "If there's enough of the active constituent in it," Green says, "functional food can be somewhat therapeutic or beneficial nutritionally." But she cautions that people should not stop taking a dietary supplement because they think they're getting enough of a nutraceutical from functional foods.

Nutraceuticals, unlike pharmaceuticals, take awhile to impart health benefits. "The problem with the American public is they think if they eat [a functional food] once in a while, it's going to take care of everything," Lachance says. "You've got to persist. It takes about 30 days before you get any response."

Ultimately, the responsibility for eating functional foods wisely lands on our own plates. "For the most part, functional foods are beneficial," Green says, "as long as you don't overdo it and don't rely on it as your medicine."

Thea Deley is a freelance writer specializing in alternative health. She lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Photography by: Jeff Padrick