Imagine eating a cheese puff that can change your life. Or a chocolate truffle that can enhance creativity.
There's a new group of foods on the market that make such claims - "functional" foods. Not surprisingly, they're aimed at health-conscious, aging consumers (read: baby boomers). From Personality Puffs to Intelligent Chocolates, think of it as "food as medicine." Or foods that heal. Or foods with great marketing muscle.
As supermarket guru Phil Lempert has said: "They figured out that this fountain of youth isn't in Florida, but rather in every aisle in every supermarket."
The rise of functional foods - also known as "nutraceuticals" - isn't surprising. An often-cited 1993 New England Journal of Medicine study found that one in three Americans uses some alternative therapy each year, spending $14 billion.
Consider these new products:
* Brain Gum: The secret ingredient is phosphatidylserine, a soybean extract that purports to improve brain performance and reduce memory loss.
* Balance+ bar: Consumers get banana flavor, rose hips and antioxidants in a bar that adheres to "zone-like" proportions (40 percent of calories from carbohydrates, 30 percent from fat, 30 percent from protein).
* Intelligent Chocolates: This brain-shaped truffle has kava kava, DHA, gingko biloba and other herbs that supposedly help people access memory.
* Cats Claw Crunch: Maple-flavored puffs laced with an herb that purports to help you live longer.
* Ginkgo Biloba Rings: The herbs are delivered in puffed potato and corn flavored with onion.
* NutraJoint: Nabisco makes a Knox unflavored gelatin that's enhanced with vitamin C, calcium and two amino acids used in building joint cartilage.
* Power Puffs: Corn puffs come with bee pollen and ginseng.
* Personality Puffs: These cheesy rice and corn puffs made with edible flowers come with instructions to buy an extra bag to give away to another person.
"It's therapy for the soul through snacks," says Robert Ehrlich, founder of Robert's American Gourmet, a New York-based company that makes Personality Puffs. He admits his snack foods probably don't contain enough herbs for a therapeutic effect.
Random acts of kindness aside, the term "functional foods" is a definition that remains a work-in-progress.
Gregory Plotnikoff, medical director of the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota, says these products "blur the borders" between foods and herbs, which are regulated differently by the Food and Drug Administration.
"These herbs are available over the counter," Plotnikoff says. "If people want to use them, they can, without having a snack full of fat, salt and sugar."
Still, Marcus Stroud, a chemistry student and creator of Intelligent Chocolates, says people will eat chocolates anyway - so why not make it healthful? "You're providing a healthy snack."
That, of course, depends on the definition of healthy. If counting calories and keeping weight down is a health goal, consider this: Each 3/4-ounce "two-bite" chunk of Intelligent Chocolates, marketed through Chocolat Nouveau in San Diego, is 100 calories, with much of it coming from the cocoa butter, Stroud says. Robert's St. John's Wort tortilla chips run 140 calories per bag, with 6 grams (about 40 percent) of fat.
Intelligent Chocolates contain 100 milligrams of herbs and other nutrients. Robert's herbal snacks have about 150 milligrams of the herbs per serving.
Pub Date: 10/25/98