20 September 2006

The functional food fudge

In today's competitive food industry, healthy products mean healthy sales but the scramble to keep up with the obesity backlash can have dangerous repercussions.

In today's competitive food industry, healthy products mean healthy sales but the scramble to keep up with the obesity backlash can have dangerous repercussions.

Foods with a function, above and beyond the inherent nutrient value, are luring consumers in droves. But worryingly, the label and all the positive connotations associated with it, are now being used to boost sales and give dietary legitimacy to previously lambasted products such as chocolate and breakfast cereals.

Given that the European market for functional foods grossed €4bn last year, it’s no wonder food manufacturers from every sector are jostling for a piece of the fortified pie.

Exacerbating the obesity boom
On the other hand, the irony is that, by slapping health-boosting claims on products deemed by some as unhealthy, food companies are actually exacerbating the obesity boom rather than beating it as they claim.

Now chocolate has become the latest item to fall victim to the all-encompassing functional machine. This only serves to mislead consumers who need very little persuasion to over-indulge.

Of course chocolate can form part of a healthy diet. There’s no need to avoid it at all costs, arguably it’s an issue of portion size – that extra bite is going to seem tantalisingly innocent if the makers are claiming it is good for the heart, brimming with antioxidants and chock-full of Amazonian superfruits.

But how else are confectioners to get a foothold in an industry where health sells?

Balance is key
As with so many thorny issues in the food industry, balance is key.

Specifically the balance between making health claims about a product while also educating consumers as to its unhealthy properties.

Take Masterfoods USA as an example. In June this year, the FDA sent the company a warning letter expressing how worried they were about health claims attached to the CocoaVia range.

While it was not disputed that the chocolate contained a high amount of cocoa flavanols and therefore antioxidants, the FDA had a problem with the extensive ‘healthy’ marketing Masterfoods had used in promoting it.

The US watchdog pointed out that the bar still contained an unhealthy amount of saturated fat. Needless to say, this was not given the same exposure as its antioxidant content.

A possible solution
In Europe, a solution appears to be on the cards.

Under the Health and Nutritional Claims Regulation, expected to be adopted today, any products purporting health benefits will be subject to strict examination by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) to determine whether they are worthy of the claim.

It was originally conceived that the law would automatically exclude products high in sugar or saturated fat (such as chocolate) from making health claims but a subsequent compromise was thrashed out in lengthy debates between European Council and Parliament.

Now the legislation looks set to allow for such products to claim health benefits as long as only one of their unhealthy nutrients exceeds advised guidelines and is clearly marked as such on the label.

If it does indeed come into force in this form, it will do much to harmonise the European functional food industry and go some way towards addressing abuse by the industry.

A worthwhile investment
But is it far enough?

The expense and administration involved in the assessment process may well prove prohibitive, thus inducing the other extreme – companies shunning the functional label altogether.

But given the potential of the soaring market, industry may judge the investment worthwhile.

Either way, it’s time for the functional fudgers to clean up their act. - (Decision News Media, September 2006)

Read more:
Functional foods not for all


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