Do functional foods mean we can finally have our cake and eat it?
At face value, functional foods may appear to be the answer to a junk-food-lover's prayer: doughnuts fortified with vitamins, Hawaiian Punch with calcium and ketchup with lycopene, a nutrient believed to prevent prostate cancer.
Does this mean we can gorge on our favorite snacks and pass on the broccoli and carrots? Not quite.
|Functional foods are not as nutritious as natural foods like fruit and vegetables.|
|Most natural foods contain a variety of micronutrients that aren't added to functional foods.|
|Consumers should be wary of the marketing hype surrounding functional foods.|
One of the problems with functional foods is that manufacturers cannot replicate the hundreds of micronutrients found in fruit and vegetables and other natural foods.
"We know that green vegetables are good for us but we don't know if it's beta-carotene, or one of the several hundreds of other carotenoids found in them," said Jo Anne Hattner, a registered dietician at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
"There is a symphony of nutrients in milk, too. Calcium is just one nutrient. We isolate it, bottle it and sell it as a supplement, but there's no doubt that milk is more nutritious than calcium alone."
Similarly, soy is believed to prevent heart attacks. But it's not known exactly which component of soy has this preventive quality. Some dieticians claim it's vitamin E; others believe it's the phytoestrogens or linolenic acids.
However most experts agree that some functional foods are more healthful than others. At the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, doctors made the decision to serve cholesterol-lowering Benecol in patient meals, rather than regular margarine.
Other functional foods, such as soft drinks with added calcium, are less beneficial, according to Dr. Robert Heaney, a professor of internal medicine at Creighton University in Omaha.
"Natural foods are usually better. But because of the problems of eating enough of the natural variety, engineered foods are here to stay."
"Consumers need to be more knowledgeable about what they need and how they're going to get it. And this means picking their way through a minefield of sometimes overblown advertising claims," he said.