by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Functional-foods

Jul 25 2014

Weekend thinking: NutraIngredients-USA’s special edition on cognitive health 

The role of specific nutrients in brain health isn’t something I think about much.  I’m of the opinion that a reasonably healthy diet takes care of health.  Stop worrying, be happy.

But I’m always interested in what the food industry is cooking up based on current research, and here’s a good sampling to ponder.

For this Special Edition, NutraIngredients-USA has a long hard think about cognitive health…

Cognition spans the lifetime, from development in the womb right through to old age. So, which ingredients have the best science? How are companies approaching this sector and what claims can they make? What’s all this about the gut-brain axis? And what’s happening with botanicals in this space?

 

Apr 23 2012

Gatorade: the new health food?

On April 20, I received a letter from a Gatorade PR person commenting on one of my posts reposted at the Atlantic Health/Food section.

After reading the letter, I searched my posts for references to Gatorade but can’t find anything specific other than my reporting the more than $100 million a year Pepsi spends to advertise this product.

So I’m guessing the letter must be referring to my comments about sports drinks in general:

Hi Marion –

I recently read your article in The Atlantic and would like to make sure you have the most current information. Your article criticizes sports drinks, advising against them because the sugars and carbs will make you fat. It also discusses the main sweetener in most sports drinks is high fructose corn syrup.

I would like to point out the carbohydrates and calories are functional in Gatorade, a sports drink, and are meant to provide fuel specifically for athletes.

The ingredients in Gatorade are backed by years of scientific research that support the need for carbohydrate sugars for fuel during training or competition and we only recommend Gatorade during the active occasion.

Also, high fructose corn syrup is not an ingredient in any Gatorade products.

For those looking for a lower-calorie sports beverage, Gatorade offers G2, which delivers the same amount of electrolytes as original Gatorade but with half the calories. Gatorade also recently introduced G Series FIT 02 Perform, which is designed for a fitness athlete and has 10 calories per 8oz serving.

Please let me know if you have any questions or need any additional information.

Best,

Katie Montiel, Gatorade Communications

I’m always happy to hear from interested readers.

And aren’t you glad to know that sugar is a functional (translation: “good-for-you”) ingredient in Gatorade?

Nov 30 2011

Report from the EU: functional foods, supplements, health claims


Sebastián Romero Melchor writing in Food Chemical News (subscription required, alas) a few days ago points out that the market for functional foods in the European Union is growing.  He advises U.S. firms who want to take advantage of  its €40 billion (equal to roughly $54 billion USD) market to pay attention to some important facts:

  • Novel ingredients: Ingredients that were not consumed to a significant extent in the EU before May 15, 1997 must undergo a costly and lengthy authorization procedure so dreadful that most companies give up and choose not to include them.
  • Supplements: The European Commission has no problem with vitamins and minerals, but marketing of food supplements and fortified foods remains subject to each European country’s separate national laws.  Products legally marketed and/or manufactured in a member-state can be legally marketed throughout the EU, provided that they are (a) safe, (b) not novel, and (3) not medicinal.
  • Health claims: The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has issued opinions on health claims for most substances.  It has evaluted about 2,750 petitions for health claims but only approved about 600.

If only the FDA would take as rigorous a stance.

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.

Sep 16 2010

Baby food politics: Should WIC pay more for “Functional” foods?

Laurie True, who directs California’s WIC Association ( WIC is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), writes in The Hill about the latest efforts of infant formula company lobbyists to extract more money for their products.

WIC, for the uninitiated, provides formula and foods to low-income mothers of small children.    But unlike Food Stamps, it is not an entitlement.  Eligible families cannot enroll in WIC if the program does not have enough money to pay for the food.

Despite ample research demonstrating the effectiveness of this program in improving the nutritional status of participants, only about half of eligible mothers and children are able to enroll.

Any increase in the cost of infant formula means that even fewer eligible mothers will be able to participate.

At issue is a provision of the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization Act thrown out when the Senate passed the bill last August.

The dropped provision called for USDA, which manages WIC, to make a scientific decision about whether WIC should offer foods that contain new “functional ingredients” like omega-3s, antioxidants, and probiotics.  These are increasingly being added to infant formula, baby food, and other foods that WIC buys.  They cost more.  But do the ingredients really make kids healthier?

To say the least, the science is highly conflicted and most studies show little evidence of demonstrable benefit.

WIC buys 60% of U.S. infant formula, so formula makers are eager to jack up the price.  USDA’s studies say that functional ingredients cost WIC upwards $90 million annually.  Formula makers are spending a fortune to make sure that these ingredients get no scientific scrutiny.

Call this baby food politics, but it matters.

Jul 19 2010

Does science support food health claims?

I think not nearly well enough, but you would never know it from listening to food manufacturers. 

Let’s start with Europe.  Health claims are a big deal there these days, as the agency dealing with them, EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), copes with thousands of petitions.

In June,  EFSA representatives complained that the “scientific” evidence submitted by food companies to support their petitions included—get this—”excerpts from the Old Testament, Wikipedia, a Tea Association press release, a Royal Air Force report and the American Heritage Dictionary.”

The NDA panel, which is responsible for assessing the mountain of health claims applications submitted under the Regulation, said that along with the expected references to clinical studies published in peer-reviewed academic journals, it had also been presented with references from Wikipedia, press releases, dictionaries, the Bible and even an RAF report.

Trying to make sense of translations of references from other languages into English had presented additional difficulties, while ‘clarifications’ provided by some applicants in response to requests for further information had been confusing or inadequate, further delaying the process.

The quality of this evidence, says EFSA, is ‘far from optimal.”  Indeed.

From the food industry point of view, however, scientific substantiation of health claims presents pesky barriers.  Moving on to the United States, a food industry commentator asks:

We’re talking about the biggest food companies in the world being told the claims that help sell some of their foods are deceptive and misleading….And them agreeing to change or withdraw the claims…Er sorry… but why go along with it if you stand by the science?…Is the science there or not? Do these products (a probiotic drink and an antioxidant-boosted cereal) work or not?…Does the problem lie with the nutrition science itself (not enough clinically backed, human intervention trial-demonstrated, positive associations), or the way the science is being interpreted by regulators and companies that wish to express some of that science in their marketing materials?

Good questions.  As I read the literature, the more carefully done studies of functional ingredients tend to show the least benefit. 

As I keep saying, functional foods are about marketing, not health.

Jun 9 2010

Functional ingredients in infant formula: Are these about health or marketing?

If you don’t have a small baby, or your baby is breastfed(and see note at end) you no doubt are missing the furor over “functional” ingredients that companies have been adding to infant formulas.

DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid) came first.  As I discuss in my book, What to Eat, infant formula companies could not wait to add it.  They knew they could market it on the basis of preliminary evidence associating DHA with visual and cognitive benefits in young infants.    Although evidence for long term benefits is scanty, the companies also knew that they could charge higher prices formulas containing DHA.

The FDA approved the use of DHA in infant formulas on the grounds that it is safe, but did not require the companies to establish that DHA makes any difference to infant health after the first year.  Because of its marketing advantage, virtually all infant formulas now contain DHA.  Surprise!  They also cost more.

Companies now want to add other ingredients, such as prebiotics, probiotics, lutein, lycopene, and betacarotene, which also can be marketed as healthier and at higher prices.

In response, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), has issued a report on the lack of evidence for the benefits of functional ingredients and the substantial harm they will cause to the economic viability of the WIC program, the USDA’s assistance program for low-income mothers and children.

WIC buys about half the infant formula sold in the United States each year.  WIC is not an entitlement program, meaning that the number of participants is limited by available funding (a GAO report explains how this works).

The CBPP report says:

As pressure mounts to limit federal discretionary spending, it is critical to ensure that WIC not spend funds on foods with functional ingredients that do not deliver clinically significant benefits. WIC spent approximately $850 million on infant formula last year, and a recent USDA study found that more than ten percent of that spending ($91 million annually) is attributable to higher-priced formulas with functional ingredients.  Under current law, the additional cost to WIC of providing foods with these ingredients is likely to grow substantially as such foods proliferate.

As the report explains, formula companies do not have to demonstrate that the added–and more expensive–ingredients do any good:

There is no mechanism within the national WIC program that requires USDA to review the research evidence on the claimed benefits of these functional ingredients or to base decisions about whether to offer foods containing such ingredients on their benefits and the specific needs of WIC participants. Currently, instead, infant formula manufacturers themselves decide whether WIC offers infant formulas with new functional ingredients, while state WIC programs decide whether WIC should offer other foods with such ingredients.

As I keep saying, functional foods (and ingredients) are about marketing, not health.  If companies are going to add functional ingredients–and charge higher prices–they need to have some convincing scientific evidence to back up their claims.

Postscript: Laurie True of the California WIC program writes:

Congressman George Miller, Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, is writing the bill that reauthorizes the WIC Program this week. He should include a provision requiring independent scientific review of the efficacy of these “functional ingredients” before USDA allows them in WIC foods and infant formula.

Note:  Lori Dorfman sends a Berkeley Media Studies Group issue paper on how to advocate for hospitals and workplaces to make it easier for moms to breastfeed.

Mar 16 2010

Cargill thinks beta-glucan is the new oat bran

In 2008, in response to a petition by Cargill, the FDA authorized a health claim for beta-glucan extracted from barley.  Beta-glucan is a form of soluble fiber similar to that from oats, psyllium, and other grains or from the cell walls of yeast.  It can help lower blood cholesterol levels and, therefore, the risk of coronary heart disease.

Cargill must think that beta-glucan will create another oat bran craze such as the one that occurred in the late 1980s.  Or at least that’s the impression given by the latest news from the U.K.: “Cargill says EFSA health claim will transform beverage fibre fortunes.”

The deal with beta-glucan is that it can be added to drinks (presumably sugary).  If so, the drinks can carry the claim:

3 grams per day of barley beta-glucan, as part of a diet low in saturated fat, and a healthy lifestyle, can help manage normal blood cholesterol (my emphasis).

Beta-glucan is a “functional” ingredient, meaning that it is something added to a food ostensibly to boost its health value.  But the entire point of functional ingredients is to be able to make health claims for them.  Health claims sell food products when nobody bothers to read the fine print.

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