January 22, 2001
In the Mix
Are "functional foods" valuable and safe?
keep bumping into them on the shelves: Strange foods I've never
seen before. Mixtures of cholesterol-lowering compounds in margarine.
Concoctions of calcium in cereal or orange juice. A sprinkling
of echinacea in soup. Drinks laced with kava kava or ginkgo.
Ounce of Prevention
| By Elizabeth Smoots, M.D.
The American Dietetic Association (ADA) says they're all part
of a promising new trend in the food industry called functional
foods. Also termed designer foods or nutraceuticals, these products
contain natural or added substances that purportedly provide health
benefits beyond the ordinary level of nutrition.
Edibles that correct dietary deficiencies -- for example, iodized
salt and vitamin-D-enriched milk -- have been around for generations.
Functional foods take it one step further, asserts the ADA, and
strive toward disease prevention, energy enhancement, and the
nebulous goal of optimal health.
for products spiked with herbal additives -- which may
have drug-like properties -- it's anyone's guess how
much you can safely consume or if they could interact
with your medications.
Linking diet and disease
I suspect recent research advances are fueling growth of the
$16-billion-a-year functional foods industry. And, according to
a survey conducted by the International Food Information Council,
86 percent of Americans want to learn more about the nutritional
benefits of these foods.
Sifting kernels of truth from the chaff, dietary experts have
found solid evidence for the health-promoting qualities of some
nutraceuticals. For example, studies have shown phytochemicals
in fruits and vegetables can help prevent cancer. Folate-enriched
cereals reduce the risk of birth defects. And isoflavones in soy
products help lower cholesterol. Products containing ingredients
with a strong scientific link to a particular disease may be labeled
with a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved health claim.
But many so-called functional foods make dubious claims. For
instance, there is no direct evidence that snack foods with added
echinacea support your immune system or beverages containing antioxidants
enhance normal heart function. Nevertheless, manufacturers are
frequently allowed to make claims like these without any documented
proof or prior FDA approval, as long as they print the following
disclaimer: "This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA.
This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, mitigate, cure,
or prevent any disease."
A dearth of regulation
Worse yet, regulatory loopholes in food-supplement law may permit
the sale of functional foods that are unhealthy for you, or even
downright hazardous. Some nutraceuticals contain excess fat, sugar,
or salt. And functional foods that are treated as supplements
-- rather than as foods -- are mostly unregulated and therefore
may be tainted with contaminants or toxic substances.
As for products spiked with herbal additives, which may have
drug-like properties, it's anyone's guess how much you can safely
consume or if the herbs could interact with your medications.
Believe it or not, the FDA does not even require that listed ingredients
must actually be present in some functional foods. So buyer beware
-- what you see may not be what you get.
In response to these concerns, the Center for Science in the
Public Interest (CSPI) has filed a complaint with the federal
government citing many examples of potentially hazardous products.
The CSPI is urging officials to stop manufacturers from making
false claims and selling functional foods with unsafe ingredients.
Until these problems get sorted out, I recommend that you take
a few precautions.
you want to use functional foods, first try the active ingredients
plain and simple -- like in a conventional food such as tofu,
or as a vitamin pill or herbal supplement -- before consuming
them in a mixture.
research each new nutraceutical product.
only brands made by a reputable company.
with your doctor to make sure your choices are compatible with
your medications and with any health conditions you have.
Lastly, I'd like to point out that many functional foods are
essentially processed foods containing food additives. For optimum
health, your diet should emphasize whole foods like fruits, vegetables,
whole grains, and beans, which naturally contain nutrients that
protect against disease. Try as we may, it's not easy to improve
on Mother Nature's own blends.
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Elizabeth Smoots, M.D., F.A.A.F.P., is a board-certified family
physician in Seattle, Washington. A fellow of the American Academy
of Family Physicians, Dr. Smoots specializes in prevention and primary