A while back, the AP (via ABC News) ran an article looking at the surging popularity of “functional foods,” also known as “nutraceuticals.” These are processed foods that have been fortified with extra nutrients or include ingredients for which some kind of health claim may be made. According to a Pricewaterhouse Coopers industry report cited in the article, these products make up about 5% of the US food market, with sales of more than $27 billion per year.
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.
What’s troubling about this is that while these foods are typically marketed under a halo of healthfulness, what’s under that halo is all too often junk. As NYU food scientist Marion Nestle notes in the article,
Functional foods are about marketing, not health….They delude people into thinking that these things are healthy….
Or as David Schardt of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says, “There’s more hype to these products than there is reality.”
Indeed, where Lucky Charms, Froot Loops and other sugary cereals can be – and are – marketed as “Smart Choices” because they contain a certain amount of fiber and synthetic vitamins and minerals (as though those completely offset the four tablespoons of sugar in each recommended serving size), you know there’s something funny going on. The FDA even cracked down on General Mills for making too grand and specific of claims about the power of Cheerios to lower cholesterol.
But the thing we dislike most about all this marketing hoo-hah is that it makes good nutrition seem much more complicated than it is, at least so far as it concerns us on a practical, day-to-day level.
Michael Pollan put it best and most famously: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
By “food,” he meant whole foods – foods that would be recognizeable as such by your grandmother, not the super-processed food-like products typically found in the center aisles of your average supermarket. Industrial processing is how the junk gets into food – chemical additives to make products taste better, look nicer and last longer. It takes cheap ingredients and mixes them up with chemicals to make them resemble quality food. The less, more lightly processed food, the better.
Let’s consider bread, for instance. Here are the ingredients for Francisco Sliced Sourdough Bread (brand and product chosen randomly; keep in mind that by law, ingredients must be listed in order of how much is in the food – those listed first are used in the highest amounts):
- Unbleached Enriched Wheat Flour (Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Reduced Iron, Niacin, Thiamin Mononitrate [Vitamin B1], Riboflavin [Vitamin B2], Folic Acid)
- Wheat Gluten
- Soybean Oil
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Wheat Starch
- Whole Wheat Flour
- Mono- and Diglycerides
- Calcium Sulfate
- Grain Vinegar
- Malted Barley
- Acetic Acid
- Ethoxylated Mono- and Diglycerides
- Citric Acid
- Ammonium Chloride
- Soy Lecithin
- Ascorbic Acid (Dough Conditioner)
Note the two sources of sugar, along with the high number of additives.
Compare that list with the ingredients in a loaf of 9 Grain Sourdough from Beckmann’s, a smaller, regional bakery:
- Unbleached wheat flour
- Cracked wheat
- Brown rice
- Sea salt
- Barley malt
- Vitamin C (in trace amounts)
Note the absence of added sugars, oils and chemicals…and that you can easily pronounce just about everything in the list. (Triticale may give some trouble. This grain is a hybrid of wheat and rye.) Every ingredient is recognizable. The bread is still technically a processed food, but it is less processed than the former, and that – along with, especially, the lack of added sugars – makes it preferable.
We could do similar comparisons of other foods and find similar cases: industrial versions containing plenty of sugars and additives (and often a high amount of salt, as well) versus versions made on a smaller and more sustainable scale. While buying local, organic and/or sustainably made processed foods can be expensive, often, you find you need less of them to fill you up. Quality can make up for quantity.
That said, we recommend keeping processed foods to a minimum – to things like bread, cheese and other items not easily made from scratch at home. When you do buy processed foods, seek versions with the fewest ingredients, little or no added sugars and nearly only ingredients that you recognize or can pronounce. Otherwise, you’re getting into the territory of products that our bodies were just not designed to eat.
If you eat a diet with good variety and based largely on whole foods, including plenty of vegetables and fruits, you will likely get all the nutrients you need, making functional foods even more worthless than they already are.