by Marion Nestle
May 15 2011

Foods with benefits? Oh, please.

Sunday’s New York Times has not one but two articles about “functional foods,” those with something added over and above what’s in the food in the first place.

A front-page story, “Dessert, laid-back and legal,” describes brownies.  No, not brownies laced with marijuana.  This time they contain the sleep-inducing drug melatonin.

The brownies, according to the Times, contain just as much melatonin as are found in drug pills but are cheaper and can be purchased with food stamps (another reason for taking a look at the whole question of SNAP benefits?).

Since melatonin is a drug and not an approved food additive, the makers of these products are trying to get around the annoying FDA restrictions by marketing the brownies as “dietary supplements.”  Supplements, by order of Congress when it passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, do not have to meet FDA’s rigorous scientific criteria for safety or efficacy.

DSHEA applied to supplements, not foods, but the FDA has chosen to regulate foods containing such additives by the weaker rules applying to supplements and to deal with them as a regulatory gray area.   Is melatonin a drug, a supplement, or in brownie from a food?  The FDA is going to have to decide this, and fast.

A much longer story in the business section, “Foods with benefits, or so they say” (in which I am quoted) focuses on the entire point of functional foods: the ability to put something in a product that allows you to market it using health and wellness claims.  Health claims sell food products.  People like buying products with a “health aura,” no matter how poorly the health claim is supported by science.  Science is irrelevant here.  Marketing is what’s relevant.

As I discuss in my book, Food Politics, until the early 1990s, the FDA did not allow health claims on food products.  Claiming a specific health benefit for a food, said the FDA, meant that the food was being marketed as a drug.  If a food was being marketed as a drug, it needed to prove safety and efficacy, something no food maker wanted to do.

When Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act in 1990, it struck a deal with the food industry.  The industry was objecting that because Nutrition Facts labels required them to say what was bad about their products, they ought to be allowed to say what was good about them.  Congress agreed, and forced the FDA to review the science linking certain food ingredients to health benefits as a basis for permitting health claims.

The FDA approved some claims but rejected others.  The rejected companies took the FDA to court, and the courts mostly ruled in favor of the companies on the grounds of the First Amendment.  The FDA stopped trying to control unsupported health claims and only recently has taken then on again.

But as sales soar, federal regulators worry that some packaged foods that scream healthy on their labels are in fact no healthier than many ordinary brands. Federal Trade Commission officials have been cracking down on products that, in their view, make dubious or exaggerated claims. Overwhelmed regulators concede that they are struggling to police this booming market, despite recent settlements with makers of brands like Kellogg’s Rice Krispies and Dannon’s Activia, which the authorities say oversold their health benefits.

To the distress of international food marketers, the U.S. currently has much looser regulations about health claims than are available in Europe.  The European Food Safety Authority has been reviewing thousands of petitions for health claims on food products and turning most of them down as scientifically unsubstantiated.  That doesn’t stop American food makers from loading on the claims.

From the ivory tower in which I sit, the remedy is easy: don’t allow health claims on processed foods at all.  The claims are all inherently misleading, as would be obvious if you gave it a minute’s thought.

But if they aren’t worth much to you, they are worth plenty to the marketers of processed foods.  And that’s what this is really about.

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  • Subvert

    I would argue the functional promise of these wonderful foods. The first function they serve is to make the board of directors of food and beverage companies more money. And who can’t get fired up about that?! Second, they allow for biased research to take place in corporate sponsored clinical and university lab studies, that show without a doubt that these things work! Third, they allow for all these cool claims to be slung through the media touting the next new miracle health breakthrough! We’re all gonna live forever, yeeeaaaay! And that’s what we need to be concerned with right now. There is way to much seriousness going on in the world. We need to keep the focus on our consumption of new and better, more expensive garbage food, because that’s whats going to save us.

  • Mary

    But melatonin is “natural” right? So it should be cool.

    The irony of this statement makes me giggle a lot though:
    “People like buying products with a “health aura,” no matter how poorly the health claim is supported by science. Science is irrelevant here. Marketing is what’s relevant.”

    This is so true with the words “natural” and “organic” but adherents of Nestle and Pollan can’t seem to grasp the misuse and aura of those terms, no matter how poorly supported by science.

  • http://amillionconnections.blogspot.com Eden Balfour

    That’s a pretty broad brush you’re using, Mary. I see a growing awareness among people that ‘organic’ is being co-opted and watered down, and ‘natural’ is fairly meaningless – and I’m not talking only about among foodies, here.

    This is what the movement to become more aware what goes into your food and how it is produced is all about – which is something that is much easier to do on a small scale.

  • http://www.bettymingliu.com bettymingliu

    i just discovered your blog via a twitter buddy. so glad you wrote this because the ny times can be so annoying! btw, i just bought several of your books and look forward to reading them over the summer. but i must confess, i’m scared to crack open one on pet foods — i’m sure what i read will make me ill.

  • Anthro

    @bettymingliu

    Don’t be afraid to read the pet book! It won’t make you ill at all. But it WILL ease your mind if you’ve been hearing a lot of unsupported drivel about how bad pet food is.

    @Eden

    I agree about the broad brush, but I DO find that a portion of the people who end up here often confuse Marion (and Pollan to some extent) with food faddists. I often advise them to actually read Marion’s books, especially “Food Politics”. That’s the one that set me on a course of rational investigation of food and supplement claims.

    ——–

    The topic here is one that will only be addressed when such issues are left to science without interference from politicians seeking to enhance the bottom line of their pet constituencies.

  • http://newhope360.com Todd Runestad

    It could be said, however, that informing consumers about what’s healthy in a food is a positive thing. And, fortifying foods with healthy components, such as omega-3s or probiotics or vitamin D, sure beats manufacturing them with unhealthy things, like excess sodium or trans fats.

    It’s easy to say that if everyone would just eat whole, fresh, unprocessed foods, then there would be no need for vitamin pills or fortified foods. But the simple fact remains that literally only about 5% of Americans eat the requisite 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. I say food manufacturers are providing a service by converging the nutritional benefits of vitamins and other supplement-style ingredients into processed foods. Organic, flax-derived frozen waffles with omega-3s beats refined white flour waffles.

  • Random Dent

    @Todd

    A.) Food and good nutrition is not just a matter of getting certain popular nutrients in–it’s far more complex than that. No one fully understands food as a whole system. No one understands exactly how nutrition works. Technology is simply not capable of synthesizing good nutrition. We know certain parts of the puzzle, but we don’t know what the greater sum of the parts are. That would be how unbalanced diets, and fad nutrition comes about. (“Fat’s bad! Fat’s good! Carbs good! Carbs bad!” and so on.)

    B.) You’re buying into the food manufacturer’s hype that they’re able to make a food that’s just as good as something minimally processed or made at home, and sadly, that’s not just the case. This is why we need to push to eliminate food deserts, increase access to the real foodstuffs, and minimize how manufacturer’s polish their images as healthy.

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  • http://www.ambroliofoods.com Natalie at Ambrolio Foods

    Marion, I loved this post. When a food label screams “healthy,” our inner voice should scream caveat emptor!

    In fact, I just wrote a personal story and post about the problems with packaged foods that are labeled gluten-free.
    http://bit.ly/jeyd2e.

    Many of these gluten-free products such as flours, breads, and baked goods are also lacking in good nutrition – the ingredient lines contain too many starches, refined grains, and gums.

    The lesson learned? Eat real, whole foods and cook yourself…

  • http://www.spinachtiger.com Angela@spinachtiger

    Trust me, many people even highly educated do not take the time to truly know what they are eating. They fall for gimmicks because they want to. I am amazed daily at what I see in people’s pantries and how they describe the benefits. For example the “fruit” pop tarts by Kellogs is mostly all sugar, but parents who want an excuse to make a fast breakfast, stay in denial.

  • Blanche C.

    I agree with Mary. The health aura is overused by organic adherents.

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  • Emma

    That’s funny, my first reaction to the name of those brownies was also to assume they were pot brownies!

    I’ve taken melatonin before, mostly to counter jet lag from international travel, and I have what I feel is an even more pressing concern: don’t the brownies taste kinda melatonin-y? I find it to be a fairly strong taste– it comes through the capsule at least half the time.

    @Random: well said!

  • Emma

    Also, to clarify, you can call me whatever kind of adherent you want: I follow both Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, I buy local, sustainable organic foods, etc., etc., etc. But I am not a food faddist (good term, Anthro!) and I know more about food than most. Please don’t make assumptions about me based on a single factor. I have also been a vegetarian for more than 20 years, I grown a large portion of what I eat, I graduated from cooking school, and I have a master’s degree. Health auras don’t fool me any more than greenwashing does.

  • Jon

    Sadly, thanks to diet books and various supermarket magazines, you can just list ingredients and make them a health claim. For instance, when I eat rice, I’m more than likely either eating Chinese (with all the vegetables and fish associated with that) or Mexican (with beans and a lot of vegetables). The associated foods have demonstrable health benefits when compared to some of the alternatives, such as a double cheeseburger, fries, and a soda. But one could just say it’s the rice.

    This translates to something great for Rice Krispies and rice cakes, the latter only being eaten for alleged health benefits.

    Macronutrietn ratios haven’t helped matters much, either. And by “much” I mean “at all”. Candy is candy and should be treated as such, but a 3 Musketeers gets away with a claim of 33% less fat (then what?), despite having more calories than a Hershey bar.

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  • Rhyza

    I’ve never been a believer of health claims unless I have first hand experience. Great post!