FOOD, FACTS and FADS

Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Functional Foods – Do They Live Up to the Hype?

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Functional foods include a variety of foods and products that have in reality or theoretically been modified to enhance their contribution to a healthy diet.  They are generally specifically formulated to supply one or more dietary ingredients that may improve health or prevent certain diseases. There is really no statutory definition and no specific regulations that apply specifically to them.  Health claims can be made for functional foods given approval by the FDA.  Two types of functional foods with apparent heath benefits are in the prebiotic/probiotic category.

The terms prebiotics and probiotics were derived from “antibiotics” due to their probable effects on increasing resistance to various diseases.  Prebiotics are defined as non-digestible food ingredients that beneficially affect a person by stimulating the growth of one or more bacterial species in the colon.  A common prebiotic is inulin, an extract from chicory root.  A probiotic is a live microorganism which when delivered in adequate amounts, provide a presumed health benefit.  They are also called “friendly” bacteria.  Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria among many others are the best-known probiotics. The concept of the combined benefits of both have been termed “symbiotics”.  They appear to be safe in general, however, probiotics may be harmful to people who may develop blood infections.

Availability of foods containing prebiotics and probiotics is much more common in Japan and European countries than in the U.S.  Food sources of prebiotics include chicory, Jerusalem artichokes, wheat, barley, rye, onions, garlic, leeks.  Ironically, these foods often cause intestinal problems in people with celiac disease or insensitivity as well as people with irritable bowel syndrome.

Food sources of probiotics include fermented milk products (yogurt, buttermilk, kefir, cottage cheese), soy sauce, tempeh, fresh sauerkraut, miso, breast milk).

Health claims for functional foods are not tightly regulated and often food companies overstep their boundaries on health claims.  Recently, Dannon got into big trouble with the Federal Trade Commission for over stating the intestinal and immune systems claim in their marketing of Activia and DanActive yogurt products.  The yogurt maker is paying out $21 million to settle charges of deceptive advertising including the Jamie Lee Curtis adds on television. Here is the FTC statement about the settlement.

An excellent New York Times article with more details of the FTC crackdowns is worth reading.  Big food companies like Kellogg are also guilty of exaggerated claims. See the link below.

Some probiotic supplements do not live up to their promises in terms of the actual quantity of microorganisms per serving in the product when compared to the amount stated on the label.  Recently, ConsumerLab.com reported that eight major probiotic supplements failed to pass that testing.  However, they all contained at least 1 billion organisms per daily serving.  This finding often occurs with other dietary supplements that promise an active ingredient, but when tested have little or sometimes no amount of the active ingredient stated on the label.  Buyer Beware!!!

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