The eager acceptance of nutraceutical-enhanced products has been running parallel with the rapid spread and absorption of at least a general knowledge of nutrition science among consumers. The ability, in just a few short years, really, of manufacturers, marketers and nutrition communicators to teach the average Jane and Joe Sixpack of Des Moines, Iowa about everything from the affects of omega-3 fatty acids on heart disease to the mechanism of antioxidants and other phytochemicals inherent in specific fruits and vegetables has been nothing short of amazing.
I often use this Well Noted column to take advantage of reader attention and try to point out what I feel are the major misconceptions that come along with the flood of nutrition knowledge - "salt causes high blood pressure," "carbohydrates cause weight gain," "glycemic index is a diet tool," and other pseudoscience that can hinder processors from effectively and honestly marketing the healthful foods they make.
This time I'd like to go in a different direction and ask processors to loosen up. No, I don't mean start making wild claims that are deliberately vague and designed to mislead. But I do want to encourage manufacturers to break out of what I call the "Four B" approach to new product development.
Those of us seeking to add wellness ingredients to our diets have a wealth of choices - there are thousands of phytochemicals alone. But as far as actual products, with few exceptions they end up restricted to: beverages, bars, baked goods and breakfast foods.
I'd like to see a real revolution in healthy foods, with processors branching out to incorporate functional ingredients throughout the food chain. As I mentioned, the exceptions are out there. The cover of our December Wellness Trends issue shows some of them, and more are highlighted throughout the issue. But in our search for a variety of nutraceutical foods and drinks we noticed the Four Bs crowding the field by about ten to one or more.
The reasons are varied. From the marketing perspective, the concept of concentrated nutrition has been inseparable from that of convenience. "We don't have time to eat right in this high-stress, burn-the-candle-at-both-ends life we lead in the west, so put as much nutrition as possible into something 'grab-&-go' and it will sell like hotcakes."
Nothing untrue about that. And the beverages and bars, etc., out there are mostly true to their promise and tasty, too. (Personally, I could live on Naked Juice and Odwalla beverages.) But there's another reason, more of a legal matter.
"Functional foods have been around for years. Breakfast cereal is a great example - a conventional food fortified with vitamins and minerals to the point that these products compete with children's vitamins. But conventional foods are limited in the ingredients they may use," says Tony Young. Young, a partner with the law firm Kleinfeld, Kaplan and Becker, LLP, Washington, is general counsel of the American Herbal Products Association. "Nutraceutical and similar ingredients must be 'Generally Recognized as Safe' - GRAS or approved food additives. And FDA has informally advised companies that foods such as breakfast cereals and soups are always conventional foods."
Young explains how this funnels the goodness into the narrow channels of beverages, bars, baked goods and breakfast foods: "When companies want to move to more exotic ingredients, such as soy isoflavones or certain herbal extracts, they choose to put these ingredients in beverages or bars. These can be in food form, are labeled as dietary supplements, cannot make any conventional food claims and cannot be represented as a meal replacement. So you won't see claims like those made for Slimfast, which is a food, on a dietary supplement beverage. Interestingly, at FDA's hearing on Functional Foods on December 5, the food and dietary supplement industry told FDA that this system works well and that no new regulatory regime should be established."
In other words, by sticking to beverages, bars etc. a more comprehensive claim can be made on the label. But I believe we've come far enough with the consumer that we can take the plunge and add more nutraceuticals to more types of processed foods. The ingredient can be its own marketing tool, in other words. Take lycopene, for example. True, it's used in beverages and breakfast foods, but it made its biggest splash in consumer consciousness with ketchup. The proof of this comes from consumer awareness of the seemingly esoteric carotenoid lycopene.
When the International Food Information Council, Washington, conducted its 2005 Consumer Attitudes Toward Functional Foods survey (www.ific.org/research/upload/2005funcfoodsresearch.pdf), the foundation discovered 57 percent of those surveyed were aware of lycopene, its protective effects against cancer (specifically prostate cancer) and 49 percent of respondents were already takig advantage of that knowledge by consuming more foods with lycopene. The study also found "relationships gaining awareness include antioxidants for protection against free radical damage and omega-3 fatty acids and other healthful fats for reduced risk of heart disease."
As mentioned above, there are many exceptions to the Four B "rule:" açai sorbet; eggs, pizza, peanut butter and olive oil with extra omega-3; meat analogs with lycopene. But wouldn't it be great to see frozen dinners with added antioxidants, soups with catechins, egg rolls with EGCG and phytochemical-laced mac and cheese? The only limits to how healthful we can make our processed foods are self-imposed ones.