by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Functional-foods

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.

Aug 7 2009

Organic nutrients: the debates continue

The Food Standards agency has issued a statement in response to the outpouring of outrage over its study demonstrating that the nutritional value of organic foods is, on average, equivalent to that of conventional foods.  In defense of the study results, the CEO of the agency says:

Irresponsible interpretation of the review by some has resulted in misleading claims being made concerning higher levels of some nutrients found in organic food.  The review…focused on nutrients where statistically significant differences were seen. Arbitrary quotes or selective use of the data from the other papers which were of less robust scientific quality should be treated with caution. The important message from this report is not that people should avoid organic food but that they should eat a healthy balanced diet and, in terms of nutrition, it doesn’t matter if this is made up of organic or conventionally produced food.

I have long argued that functional foods (in which nutrients are added over and above those that are already present in the foods) are not about improving health; they are about improving marketing.  Evaluating foods on the basis of their content of one or another nutrient is what Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism.”  Nutritionism is about marketing, not health.

I am a great supporter of organic foods because their production reduces the use of unnecessary chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones, and favors more sustainable production practices.  Yes, some organic foods will be higher in some nutrients than some conventional foods.  But so what?  Customers who can afford to buy organic foods are unlikely to be nutrient deficient.  What’s at stake in the furor over this issue is market share.  What should be at stake is the need to produce food – all food – more sustainably.

Jun 4 2009

The latest functional foods!

Functional foods, you may recall, are those to which nutrients are added beyond those already in the foods.  The latest example from Unilever: calcium-enriched ice cream!  The philosophy: “better-for-you” foods will improve health.  Maybe, but is functional ice cream a good choice?

Functional foods differ from fortified foods, in which nutrients lost during processing are replaced.  The addition of iron to white flour, for example, replaces the iron lost during the milling of whole wheat.  Its replacement helps prevent iron-deficiency anemia.

So I suppose you can consider Kellogg’s new fiber-enriched cereals to be a form of fortification.  The PR people tell me  that adding fiber “is another example of our continued commitment to improving the nutrition credentials of our products to meet consumers’ needs and preferences.”  Their press release explains that Kellogg is doing this as a public service to improve kids’ nutrition: it is starting with Froot Loops.

What kind of fiber and how much?  Kellogg is a bit vague on these points, but says the fiber will be a combination of whole grain corn and oat flours and fibers.  Metamucil anyone?  And why don’t they just make whole grain cereals in the first place?

That’s why I keep thinking that functional foods are about marketing, not health.

Apr 8 2009

Great news: probiotic ice cream!

Now here’s news we’ve all been waiting for: Brazilian food scientists have invented probiotic ice cream.  Probiotics, as you no doubt have heard, are bacteria like the ones that ferment milk into yogurt.  These are supposed to do great things for your health.  As I discuss in What to Eat, there is some – but not terribly compelling – evidence to back up this claim.

This product apparently looks and tastes like ice cream, but supposedly replaces nasty bacteria in your intestines with friendlier types.    But wait!  I thought freezing killed off most of those friendly bacteria.  Frozen yogurt has less fat than ice cream, but it also has way fewer bacteria than regular yogurt.

If this stuff ever gets onto the market, I’ll bet its makers advertise the number of bacteria they put into the ice cream, but don’t say a word about how few survived freezing and storage.

Functional foods (those designed to have some nutritional benefit beyond the nutrients in the food) are about marketing, not health.   They are supposed to make you feel good while eating lots of ice cream.

I don’t need probiotics to feel good about eating ice cream.  Especially ginger ice cream.  Or peach.

Added comment, April 9: Does freezing kill probiotic bacteria?  Yes it does, although “most” is an exaggeration.  As I discuss is What to Eat, the National Yogurt Association standards for regular yogurt require 100 million live bacteria per gram; its standard for frozen yogurt is 10 million bacteria per gram – a ten-fold decrease.   In bacterial terms, both are small numbers.  In any case, these bacteria may be good for you (and I emphasize the uncertainty), but watch out for the calories!