Functional Foods For You?
Q. What are "functional foods"? At the market, I've seen margarines which claim to lower cholesterol and candy bars which are supposed to strengthen my bones. What do you think about these products?
So-called "functional foods" have been appearing on the market with increasing frequency. No one seems to have an exact definition of what they are, but they're usually foods advertised to meet a specific health need. Last year, for example, the Food and Drug Administration approved two margarines said to lower cholesterol. A number of other functional foods are heading for the U.S. market, including orange drinks and biscuits and cereals that claim to strengthen bones and aid digestion.
For a food manufacturer to claim that one of its products affects health by, say, lowering cholesterol, it must submit the food for FDA approval. The FDA must give the go-ahead before manufacturers can advertise the purported benefits. However, the evaluation process for food items isn't as rigorous as it is for drugs -- manufacturers only have to demonstrate that the ingredients are generally recognized as safe.
Whether you can actually benefit from functional foods remains an open question. For example, to get the cholesterol-lowering effects of the new margarines, you would have to consume three premeasured servings a day in place of the spread you currently use (as well as maintain a low-fat diet). Even then, the best you could expect is a 10 percent decrease in cholesterol. If you need to lower your cholesterol further than that, you'd have to do more than switch margarines.
Before going the functional food route, I suggest you look at the benefits you can get from natural, unprocessed foods. Fruits and vegetables are full of healthy substances that can neutralize free radicals and thus help protect against heart disease and cancer. Omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid in fish, cheese, and meats do the same. Furthermore, you can get all the fiber you need to reduce your risks of heart disease and colon cancer by eating the recommended five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily. You should also maintain a low-fat diet and exercise regularly.
So far, the functional foods introduced haven't caught on as manufacturers expected. The Kellogg company recently dropped its Ensemble line of fortified products after test marketing proved disappointing. Another drawback to functional foods is that they're more expensive than alternatives.
In addition, many are not palate-pleasing. After taste testing 13 different functional foods recently, a New York Times reporter gave thumbs-up to only five items. For calcium, he liked Aviva hot chocolate drink and orange juice and Viactiv caramel chews. He also liked Aviva whole wheat biscuits, a digestive aid, and EnfaGrow's cheese-flavored crackers, which are a vitamin-fortified snack for toddlers. Cholesterol-lowering products fared the worst: The Times reporter gave a thumbs-down to the two new margarines (Benacol and Take Control), as well as an orange cereal bar (Aviva) and two salad dressings (Benacol Thousand Island and Take Control Blue Cheese).