Nutrition: Understanding Nutritional Claims Chapter 8

What Makes a Functional Food?


Aren’t All Foods Functional?

One of the hottest health topics in recent years has been research into specific foods that are believed to deliver a health-promoting or disease-preventing benefit above and beyond everyday nutrition. They are often referred to as “functional foods” meaning that they deliver more than just calories to burn for energy. There is no technical definition of a functional food, however, nor does the FDA recognize functional foods as a distinct category. And it is quite possible that all whole foods are “functional” in this sense if we knew everything there was to know about them. READ MORE

While many functional foods are rich in vitamins, the recent research and consumer interest in these “superfoods” is focused on components that are not categorized as vitamins. Vitamins are, by definition, essential in tiny amounts; the absence of a particular vitamin in the diet leads to deficiency. Functional foods, on the other hand, contain certain components, such as those found in red wine, green tea and dark chocolate, that are not strictly necessary, but are believed to play key roles in optimal health and wellness.

Functional food awareness is booming these days thanks to a combination of intense consumer interest, marketing savvy and media attention. In every waiting room in every doctor’s or dentist’s office there is at least one magazine that shouts: “10 Superfoods You Need to Eat Every Week!” The media hype is not all bad, but it is also not all good; in fact, the emphasis on the latest superfood (a name that some experts dislike) may distract consumers from eating a wider variety of foods.

Phytochemicals (the sub-categories of which go by a dizzying array of names: flavanoids, flavanols, polyphenols, carotenoids, phytosterols, stanols, sterols, catechins, carotenoids, anthocyanidins, lycopenes and many, many more) are believed to work in many different ways. Most phytochemicals act as antioxidants, at least to some degree. But some have anti-bacterial properties and others interact with enzymes, hormones or other nutrients.

But why do we need them and why don’t we get enough of them? We commonly think of our ancient ancestors as primarily carnivores. But, in fact, throughout most of human evolution, large amounts of plants foods were essential to the daily diet, which means a diet rich in natural phytochemicals. Modern diets that are long on refined grains and short on whole grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables can easily be low in these micronutrients. LESS


Marketing Nutrition

It is certainly exciting news when researchers discover hidden benefits in foods. And it is understandable that food marketers are eager to capitalize on this research. But what this means for consumers is an explosion of often bewildering nutrition claims for foods. READ MORE

Producers and manufacturers can make the following types of claims for foods.

  1. Health claims. There are 2 categories of health claims that can be made. The first are those claims that are based on “significant scientific agreement.” The second are “qualified” health claims, which are based on weaker evidence and therefore require a disclaimer.

  2. Nutrient content claims. This basically boils down to telling consumers how much of a certain ingredient a food product contains. That sounds simple, but often isn’t. Foods are routinely described as “skim,” “lean,” “low cholesterol,” “a good source of fiber,” “high in vitamin C,” “light,” “lite” or “reduced sodium.” But “reduced” or “high” relative to what? The FDA and USDA regulate the use of these relative terms and have established standards by which these claims are measured. Standards are complicated, but are at least consistent within food groups.

  3. Structure/function claims. These are claims that describe “the role of a nutrient or dietary ingredient intended to affect normal structure or function in humans.” What does that mean? One example would be, “calcium builds strong bones.” That sounds basic and it might seem that nutritional scientists know all they needs to know about which systems of the body are helped by which foods. But such claims are often quite weak. A food that claims to “help support a healthy heart” does not have to be backed up with any evidence that it reduces the risk of heart disease.



Identifying Weak Claims

This system of food claims might seem less than crystal clear. And it is. Even the FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg acknowledged that in 2009, when she stated that while “accurate, easy-to-read, and scientifically valid nutrition and health information on food labels is an essential component of a comprehensive public health strategy to help consumers improve their diets and reduce their risk of diet-related diseases,” the importance of food labeling as an essential means to that end was not getting the attention it deserved. READ MORE

How Qualified is Qualified?

Put yourself in the shoes of a food producer. On the one hand, you want to aggressively market any legitimate health claims. But on the other hand, government qualifiers on these claims can seem overly strict, and, frankly, a bit off-putting. In fact, consumers might be surprised at just how cautious the official language of these disclaimers really is. Below are two examples of foods that are generally perceived as having special benefit. It isn’t any wonder that such qualified claims don’t get top billing, and that food producers instead opt for the weaker, but more positive-sounding structure/function claim that tomatoes or green tea “help support the body’s defense system.”

Tomatoes and prostate cancer:

“Very limited and preliminary scientific research suggests that eating one-half to one cup of tomatoes and/or tomato sauce a week may reduce the risk of prostate cancer. FDA concludes that there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim.”

Green tea and breast cancer:

“Two studies do not show that drinking green tea reduces the risk of breast cancer in women, but one weaker, more limited study suggests that drinking green tea may reduce this risk. Based on these studies, FDA concludes that it is highly unlikely that green tea reduces the risk of breast cancer.” LESS

The material on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Consult a licensed medical professional for the diagnosis and treatment of all medical conditions and before starting a new diet or exercise program. If you have a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.