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Food Experts Blast ‘Junk Food’ Spiked With Nutrients

August 20, 2009

Nutritionists say junk foods are being spiked with nutrients to give them a healthier glow and consumers are being tricked into buying more of them, The Associated Press reported.

Even during a weak economy, people will pay a premium for products seen as preventing a health problem or providing a good alternative to sodas and empty-calorie snacks, according to a report released Thursday from research firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers.

Such products include juices that supply kids with needed calcium, but also candy disguised as granola bars with a tiny amount of nutrients being snuck in.

Critics say these products, referred to in the industry as “nutraceuticals” or “functional foods,” could lead people to consume too much of certain nutrients, as well as too many calories and fats.

Other experts, like New York University food scientist Marion Nestle, call them “calorie distractors.”

She said functional foods are about marketing, not health, and they delude people into thinking they are healthy and they often eat more than is wise.

She cited a candy bar pumped with caffeine and B vitamins, marketed as an “energy boost,” and fattening ice creams enriched with calcium and helpful bacteria called probiotics, as some of the main offenders.

Some nutrition experts suggest that too much of vitamins A, C, E and folic acid can be risky for some people.

Tufts University nutrition expert Alice Lichtenstein told the AP folic acid, for example, is “uncharted territory” because so many foods now are fortified with it.

“We don’t actually know how high you can go and be safe,” she said.

The Pricewaterhouse report showed that functional foods accounted for more than $27 billion in sales a year, or about 5 percent of the U.S. food market. Estimates of future growth range from 8.5 to 20 percent per year, far more than the 1 to 4 percent forecast for the food industry as a whole.

One of the big draws has been fiber, for digestive health. In 2007, General Mills expanded its Fiber One brand into bars with appealing flavors such as Oat & Caramel and Chocolate Mocha. Sales exceeded $100 million in the first year.

The company added whole grain to its entire Big G cereal line in 2004 ““ some 50 to 60 brands.

A cereal such as Lucky Charms, made from whole grain oats and containing less sugar than many yogurts, is a healthy breakfast choice, according to Kathy Wiemer, a company dietitian.

She argued there are many misperceptions around foods that contain sugar, and they know that consumers are far below the recommended intakes for fibers and whole grains.

Dave DeCecco, a spokesman for Tropicana’s maker, PepsiCo Inc, said vitamin-enhanced versions of Tropicana Pure Premium juices now account for 40 percent of Tropicana sales and the share is growing. Vitamins A, C, D and E plus folic acid, potassium and calcium were recently added to a kids’ version.

Coca-Cola Inc. makes an enhanced Minute Maid orange juice with a host of vitamins plus zinc, and an apple juice marketed for kids with multiple vitamins and calcium. Kraft Foods Inc. sells a version of Capri Sun drinks with added antioxidant vitamins.

The Pricewaterhouse report said soft drinks, including vitamin waters and sports beverages, now claim a third of the nutraceutical market. Although carbonated soft drink sales have declined, these drinks have increased in sales.

The report also noted that dairy products, led by yogurts such as Yoplait and Dannon’s Activia line, accounted for nearly $7 billion in sales in 2007, just behind the beverage category.

David Schardt, senior nutritionist for the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the AP many of these “plus” products can have minuses, such as sweetened beverages that cost $2 and $3 apiece with added ginkgo or caffeine or chromium, a supposed appetite suppressant.

He called these products simply junk food dressed up to look prettier than it is.

“People are going to be deceived into thinking a lot of these products are especially healthy for them when there’s little evidence they are. There’s more hype to these products than there is reality,” he added.

Meanwhile, the federal Food and Drug Administration is paying more attention to health claims on functional foods. The agency recently sent General Mills a letter saying that Cheerios was being “promoted for conditions that cause it to be a drug” – lowering cholesterol 4 percent in six weeks.

The company argued that its fiber health claim has been FDA-approved for 12 years, and that the cholesterol claim has been on Cheerios boxes for more than two years. The company is working with the FDA to reach a fair solution.

Schardt said other nutrition scientists are calling for the FDA to go after hyped claims of foods and ingredients that can “boost immunity” – a vague concept with little hard science to back it up.

Lichtenstein said omega-3 fatty acids are also drawing more attention. While the ones that some studies have linked to heart benefits are derived from marine sources, such as fish oil, most foods touting omega-3 use plant sources.

She said the biggest worry is that adding a nutrient will give “a health halo” to foods and lead to overconsumption.

“The biggest problem we have in the United States is overnutrition – too much calories,” she added.

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