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Are All Functional Foods Really Functional?

Are All Functional Foods Really Functional?A New York Times article (“ Foods with Benefits, or So They Say”) questions the legitimacy of functional foods. Grocery store aisles are brimming with food products that claim to impart some health benefit, including many items that are artificially enhanced with antioxidants and other nutrients that nature did not intend for them to have. In the United States, sales of functional foods are up and show no sign of declining: from $28.2 billion in 2005 to $37.3 billion in 2009.

IFT member Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, says that functional foods “are not about health. They are about marketing.” And for many grocery store items packaged to sell by food marketing experts, her sentiments may be true. But there are some food scientists who are dedicated to determining the healthful nutrients in natural, non-processed foods and how they benefit the human body.

For the 2011 Annual Meeting & Food Expo, IFT has lined up several scientific sessions that focus on the benefits of certain foods and food groups—none of which focuses on the nutrient-enhanced food fads that line supermarket shelves. Session 019-01, “Inflammation: What It Is and What Foods Can Do about It,” includes a presentation by Britt M. Burton-Freeman that will focus on the ability of plant foods to reduce the risk of chronic inflammatory diseases such as atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. During Poster Session 087-01, “The Health Benefits of Resistant Starch Type 5,” Jovin Hasjim will present research indicating that resistant starch sources like potatoes and bananas may prevent insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. In Session 180-02, “Health Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables,” Rui Hai Liu will discuss the health benefits of whole fruits and vegetables and the positive effect these foods have on weight control and brain health. And Session 251-02, “Naturally Occurring Substances as Antimicrobials,” includes a presentation by Alison C. Lacombe that will discuss the antimicrobial properties of American cranberries.

Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, advised to let food be our medicine and to let medicine be our food. In today’s modern food markets, consumers can purchase boxes of sugary cereals enriched with vitamins, milk infused with omega-3 fatty acids, and orange juice enhanced with calcium. Nonetheless, several studies indicate that antioxidants and other nutrients added to non-native foods are ineffective.

Give us your opinion: So should food manufacturers and food scientists supplement not-so-healthy food products with nutrients and other healthy ingredients? Are consumers better off with the ability to choose either naturally nutritious foods or artificially enhanced products?

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