Added Ingredients

New foods aim to fight health problems ranging from high cholesterol to hot flashes, but are they safe?

January 10, 2001|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Like a modern-day Mary Poppins, food manufacturers are finding that a spoonful of sugar and other tasty ingredients will make the medicine go down - and that aging baby boomers will pay a premium for it.

From small, new start-ups like Zoe Foods in Boston, which makes flax and soy cereal designed to ease hot flashes associated with menopause, to giants like Lipton, which makes a margarine that promises to lower cholesterol, companies are developing so-called functional foods that promise health benefits once found only in pills.

Even soda companies are hoping to get a fizz out of functionality with the introduction of such beverages as ArizonaRX Stress Relief Elixir with ginseng and other ingredients, and Think Drink, by Odwalla, with ginkgo biloba.

Of course, all food is functional in one way or another. Fortified foods have been around for more than 50 years, ever since vitamins were added to milk, cereal and bread. But thanks to scientific advancements and an aging baby-boomer population, the explosion of new products is unprecedented.

While there is no precise definition of functional food, making it difficult to pinpoint the size of the market, Clare Hasler, executive director of the Functional Foods for Health Program at the University of Illinois, wrote in 1998 that estimates for the U.S. market range from $8 billion to $80 billion.

But despite the growing demand for such products, some industry watchers have raised questions about the safety and effectiveness of these "value-added" foods.

One of the most controversial ways of adding health benefits to food is through genetic engineering. Though some tout the benefits of these "franken foods," others worry that fooling with Mother Nature is more boondoggle than boon.

The Food and Drug Administration considers labeling of genetically altered food on a case-by-case basis, notes the American Dietetic Association. "If the whole food is not materially different from its traditional counterpart, mandatory labeling designating it as a product of biotechnology is not required and is, in fact, misleading unless accompanied by a statement clarifying that there is no difference in healthfulness between the two products," says the association.

This approach may be scientifically logical, but it is controversial, the association says.

Other functional foods have raised eyebrows because they are made with dietary supplements that are not subject to the same FDA standards as food.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest - a nonprofit group in Washington that studies food quality and safety - doesn't particularly like food with supplements.

"Functional food could be a public-health boon or add up to little more than 20th-century quackery," said Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for CSPI. In particular, CSPI is concerned about products with herbal ingredients like ginkgo biloba, which acts as a blood thinner and can be dangerous when taken with anticoagulant drugs; and kava, a factor in several drunken-driving arrests.

FDA laws are complicated, but in general, manufacturers do not need to register with the FDA or get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements. The health claims aren't subject to FDA approval either.

In July, CSPI called on the FDA to better regulate functional foods. "The FDA has taken no action in response to our complaints," Silverglade said.

Despite these concerns, research has shown that some functional foods provide real benefits.

Two spreads - Benecol, by Johnson & Johnson, and Take Control, by Lipton - offer substantial research to back up their cholesterol-lowering claims. "The science is there," said Michael DeAngelis, a nutrition communications specialist based in Washington.

A consumer who already eats butter or margarine two or three times a day may get favorable results by switching to one of these spreads, he said.

Amanda Ryan, a registered dietician at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said she sometimes recommends Benecol to people with a history of heart disease.

"There are always side effects to medications," she said. "The nice thing about these margarines is they're from plants; there haven't been any side effects known."

But the spreads are still high in fat and should be eaten in moderation, DeAngelis said. They are not recommended for people who don't already eat butter or margarine.

As with many functional foods, the consumer pays a premium for the added benefit of these spreads. At SuperFresh, an 8-ounce tub of Benecol sells for $4.99, while 16 ounces of America's Choice margarine sells for 89 cents.

Lipton has been so happy with Take Control, which retails at around $3.79 for 10 ounces, that the company is now hard at work on other functional foods. The category represents a "strong growth opportunity," said David Blanchard, vice president of development and innovation for Lipton.

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