Food For Thought

Do products blending nutrition and pharmaceuticals live up to their claims?

September 06, 2007|By Janet Helm

Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food. Those were the words of the famed Greek physician Hippocrates nearly 3,000 years ago.

Today you can barely tell the difference between the two. Or at least the line is getting fuzzier.

We've boldly entered an era of nutraceuticals: a blending of foods and pharmaceuticals dubbed "phoods" and "bepherages." These functional foods and beverages are no flash in the pan. They've grown into a huge market estimated at nearly $25 billion and destined to reach $39 billion by 2011, according to the market research publisher Packaged Facts.

It's no longer simply about vitamins and minerals, which are being pumped into an unprecedented range of products - from bottled water and soft drinks to candy bars and cupcakes. Now some of the most popular ingredients in the drugstore are showing up in the grocery store.

Ailment-specific additives are popping out of the supplement aisle and into foods and beverages that are designed to do everything from lower cholesterol to ease arthritis pain.

Functional foods expert John Erdman, a professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, thinks this is a positive trend because people would rather eat than take pills.

Drug-leery consumers may find functional foods a more appealing option, said Erdman, citing the problem of compliance with medication.

"Huge numbers of people never even fill their prescriptions," he said.

Not everyone is happy to see the onslaught of functional foods. Some critics are concerned about misleading claims, loose regulations and inappropriate fortification, such as adding nutraceutical ingredients to sugar-laden, low-nutrient products.

If a food didn't start off as a healthful choice, then no amount of fortification will transform it, said Chicago dietitian David Grotto, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association.

"Not all foods are a worthy delivery system for fortification," said Grotto, who believes functional foods can play a role, but they should not edge out naturally nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables.

Even though he's an ardent supporter of functional foods, Paul Lachance, director of the Nutraceuticals Institute at Rutgers University, acknowledges that the marketing claims can sometimes get ahead of the science.

To help you sort through the array of functional foods available today, check out the accompanying list of some of the most popular nutraceutical ingredients (and where you can find them) to see if they live up to their claims.

Ingredient -- Plant sterols

What it is -- A natural plant compound often extracted from soybeans

The claim -- Lowers blood cholesterol

Where you'll find it -- Nature Valley Healthy Heart chewy granola bar; Oroweat Whole Grain & Oat Bread; Promise activ SuperShots; Yoplait Healthy Heart yogurt

What the experts say -- Plant sterols (or phytosterols) have been widely studied and the cholesterol-lowering benefits repeatedly documented, said Linda Van Horn, professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's medical school. Even so, sterol-fortified foods are not a "magic bullet," and they won't negate the detrimental effects of a diet high in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol, she said.

Ingredient -- Omega-3 fatty acids

What it is -- A type of fat found in fish and certain plants (flaxseed, walnuts, canola)

The claim -- Promotes heart and brain health

Where you'll find it -- Breyers ice cream; Horizon Organic Milk; Smart Balance peanut butter; Tropicana Healthy Heart orange juice; Yoplait Kids yogurt

What the experts say -- A large portion of the positive heart-health research has looked at eating fish, with a few studies examining fish oil supplements, but there's little hard evidence to support the claims of omega-3 fortified foods, said Van Horn. "It's a leap of logic," she said, to believe these products would offer the same benefits, particularly plant sources of omega-3s (ALA), which are far less potent than fish oils. Omega-3 foods fortified with fish oils (DHA or EPA on the label) come closest to the real thing.

Ingredient -- Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG)

What it is -- Green tea extract

The claim -- Invigorates metabolism to burn calories and lose weight

Where you'll find it -- Celsius soda; Enviga sparkling green tea

What the experts say -- A few studies have been conducted, but the evidence is weak and inconsistent, said David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that sued Coca-Cola and Nestle for "fraudulent" Enviga claims. Three cans a day did help some study participants burn about 100 more calories, but actual weight loss has not been shown.

Ingredient -- Probiotics

What it is -- Live and active bacteria

The claim -- Aids digestive health and immunity

Where you'll find it -- Dannon Danimals; DanActive and Activia; Kashi Vive cereal; Kraft LiveActive cheese; Naked Juice

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