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Thursday, June 23, 2011 11:16 am

What’s healthy?

Playing Whac-a-Mole with industrial “healthy food”%u2008marketing


I started laughing when I spied the bottles of grapefruit juice at the store. “What’s funny?” another shopper asked.

“It says ‘Fat Free,’” I chuckled.

“Why does that make you laugh?” she asked. “Because grapefruit juice is naturally fat-free,” I replied. “They’re trying to make us think it’s something special when it’s just regular grapefruit juice.”

An exploding number of food and drink products’ “front-of-package” labels make claims that range from lowering cholesterol, being heart healthy, regulating colons, improving concentration and memory and even “defying death.”

They’re called functional foods – a term most people have never heard and, even if they have, probably don’t know what it means. But it’s very familiar to industrial food processors. As Natasha Singer says in a recent New York Times article, “Functional food has turned into a big business for Big Food.”

So what is “functional food”? There’s no specific, legal answer, at least not here in the United States. Amorphous variations are available on the Internet. Wikipedia succinctly stated: “Functional food is any healthy food claimed to have a health-promoting or disease-preventing property beyond the basic function of supplying nutrients. The general category of functional foods includes processed food or foods fortified with health-promoting additives.”

It’s hardly a new concept. The idea of food as medicine dates back to ancient Greece. In the early 20th century, Iodine was added to salt, and Vitamin D to milk to improve health. The first commercial cereals were created in health sanitariums in the late 1880s to improve patient health. Coca-Cola was originally sold as a nerve tonic – and included cocaine.

Today’s functional foods do include healthy nutrients. But how much? Are they really better than similar products? And, most important, are their “healthy” claims valid, or merely hype?

A few years ago, commercials for Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats implied that kids who ate Frosted Mini-Wheats for breakfast did better in school. “Oh, please,” I thought when I first saw them.

In one, a teacher mumbles as she fumbles with some papers, “Now where were we?”

“We were on the third paragraph of page 57 and you were explaining that the stone structures made by ancient Romans were called aqueducts,” a student chirps. “And you were writing that up on the board, and your chalk broke – in three places.”

“I’ve never been so proud,” says a cartoon Frosted Mini-Wheat, brushing away tears.

“They can’t think anyone actually believes this?” I thought. But a voiceover had proof: “A clinical study showed kids who had a filling breakfast of Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal improved their attentiveness by nearly 20 percent.”

 Economists call products like these “credence goods.” Because it’s impossible for almost everyone to evaluate such products’ claims, people depend on experts.

And on regulators. I was dubious about Frosted Mini-Wheats’ claims, and so were the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission. Their investigation of Kellogg’s “clinical study” revealed that the children who ate a FMW breakfast were compared to kids who were only given water. Even then, only about half the FMW group showed any improvement whatsoever. Only one in nine showed a 20 percent improvement; as a group the children’s attentiveness improved less than 11 percent.

In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission filed charges. Kellogg admitted the claims were false and accepted a settlement that didn’t include fines. It included Kellogg’s agreement to cease making any deceptive or misleading health claims for their cereals and snacks. But last year Kellogg was cited again. Packaging featuring Snap, Crackle, and Pop dressed as superheros, standing in front of a shield proclaiming, “Helping to Support Your Family’s Immunity” resulted in another, expanded, FTC restrictive order. Still, FMW’s slogan remains “Keeps ’Em Full, Keeps ’Em Focused!”

Regulators such as FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods Michael R. Taylor are overwhelmed with policing the ever-expanding number of functional foods, and frustrated that as soon as they prove one product’s claim is misleading, big food company marketing departments come up with another. “Going after them one by one with the legal and resource restraints we work under is a little like playing Whac-A-Mole, with one hand tied behind your back,” Taylor says.

Consumer advocates join regulators in voicing concerns that a product boldly marketed as healthy often costs more than an ordinary brand of the same food that’s equally healthy, enticing shoppers to buy the more expensive brand. And nutritionists say that the broad range of functional foods available, with an equally broad range of health claims, confuse many consumers about their real health value.

One of the biggest concerns is that the bold front-of-package claims make people less likely to check the Nutrition Facts information panel that’s usually on the back, something confirmed by FDA research. One of the most important of those Nutrition Facts is portion size. People too often think that a functional food’s health claim means it’s OK – even good – to consume in unlimited quantities. Welch’s 100 percent Grape Juice proudly displays it’s red-heart certification from the American Heart Association. But an eight-ounce glass has 36 grams of sugar, higher than some candy bars. True, the grape juice’s sugar occurs naturally. But a diabetic or someone just watching calories could find themselves in trouble.

The flip side of portion size also is sometimes deceptive. “Oatmeal Helps Reduce Cholesterol!” proclaims the box front of Quaker Oatmeal Squares. True, but read the FDA required small print, and you’ll discover that for that benefit you’d have to eat three bowls of it daily – a total of 630 calories for just the cereal, milk not included.

You’d have to eat three cartons of Activia (owned by Dannon) to get any benefit from it, too. But the commercials, which claimed that it’s “clinically proven to help regulate your digestive system in two weeks,” like FMW’s, went too far, FTC regulators found. Many of the company’s own scientific studies found that it was no more helpful than placebos. Activia’s marketing implies it’s an especially effective yogurt. Dannon developed its specific strain of probiotic bacteria, Bifidobacterium animalis DN 173 010, and patented it under the trade names Bifidus Regularis or Bifidus Actiregularis. But it’s only one of many kinds of Bifidobacterium animalis – and other active probiotic cultures – that make yogurt good for you.

In a December 2010 FTC settlement, Dannon was prohibited from marketing Activia to relieve temporary irregularity or “improve transit time” without also saying three servings daily are required. Dannon paid $21 million dollars to 39 states to resolve related investigations.

David C. Vladeck, the FTC’s Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection says there are worries that go beyond confusing consumers or paying more for functional foods. He fears that people – especially the poor and uninsured – purchasing products that claim to boost immunity or reduce prostate cancer risk may not get flu shots or visit a doctor.

“Cheat Death!” “Death Defying” “Drink to Prostate Health” said ads for Pom Wonderful. The FDA has accused the company of marketing their products as supplements to treat disease. Meanwhile the FTC has filed a complaint regarding exaggerated or overstated research results in Pom’s advertising.

Pom’s founder, Lynda Resnick, is fighting back with a lawsuit claiming that the FTC is overstepping its authority, setting new standards for food and dietary supplement advertising. Besides, as she writes in her book on branding, Rubies in the Orchard, buying foods marketed with health benefits makes people feel that they’re doing something good for themselves and their families: “Lots of people drink Pom because it makes them feel healthier – data or no data.”

That’s nonsense, according to Marion Nestle, a nationally renowned professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. “Functional foods, they are not about health,” she says. “They are about marketing.”

Contact Julianne Glatz at

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