Are New Food Trends Dysfunctional?
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I had the pleasure of asking Dr. Barry Sears, best selling author of The Zone Diet, a few questions about current food trends. Here are some highlights from our conversation:
Q: Why do people seem to constantly seek out new foods/food products?
A: As our obesity epidemic worsens, and as the general health of Americans continues to decline, it’s no surprise that people are always searching for new foods (many that make bold promises) to make themselves thinner, happier and smarter.
Q: In your opinion, what do you see as next big food trend?
A: The leading contenders for the next big food trend are so-called functional foods. Frankly, these are simply processed foods with added dietary supplements; people are more likely to purchase these foods over other similar foods on the same shelf because of their perceived (but not always proven) health benefits.
Q: What are some popular functional foods?
A: Only two functional foods have been truly successful over the years. The first is Gatorade®. Originally developed to reduce minerals lost during exercise, the original Gatorade® tasted terrible. So they simply added some sugar to make it taste better and called it a sports drink. Gatorade® is basically a Coke® or a Pepsi® with minerals, but many people feel better about themselves when you guzzle down a Gatorade®.
The other commercial success was Tropicana® Orange Juice with Calcium. The makers of Tropicana® didn’t ask you to pay a premium for this functional food since it was exactly the same price as Tropicana® Orange Juice without calcium. That’s why the sales of this functional food dramatically increased. Who doesn’t want something extra (that may even be healthy) for free?
Q: Any new up and coming functional foods?
A: It’s been a long time since any new functional foods tried to break into the market. The two most recent have been POM® and Activia® yogurt. POM® contains polyphenols from the pomegranate seed. That’s good because polyphenols are excellent anti-oxidants and potentially good anti-inflammatory chemicals. But like the minerals in Gatorade®, they taste terrible. So when you purchase a bottle of POM®, what you’re getting is a mass of added sugar. I guarantee you that the intake of these polyphenols in POM® is not worth the extra sugar.
Q: What other foods contain polyphenols?
A: Another “new” source of polyphenols we hear about comes from chocolate, which is now being promoted as the new super-fruit (1). Like all polyphenols, the polyphenols found in chocolate are intensely bitter. That’s why no one likes to eat unsweetened baker’s chocolate even though it is polyphenol-rich. But if you add a lot of sugar to it, then it tastes great. In fact, it’s a candy bar. Again, like most functional foods, these polyphenol-rich functional foods represent one step forward in that you are consuming more polyphenols, but two steps backwards for consuming too much sugar.
Q: How do these functional foods taste?
A: Tasting bad is something that has really prevented yogurt sales from taking off in America. The solution was simple: add more sweetness, usually in the form of fruit and extra sugar. Finally, natural yogurt became acceptable. But to turn it into a functional food, Dannon® decided to add more probiotics to its already sugar-sweetened yogurt and call it Activia®, promoting it as a way to soothe an angry digestive system.
Q: Did this move help its sales?
A: In December 2010, the Federal Trade Commission stepped in and hit Dannon® with a $21-million fine for false advertising (2). Not only were the levels of probiotics in Activia® too low to be of any health benefit, but Dannon® was also making drug-claims on a food to boot. Not surprisingly, the FTC is also after POM® for similar misleading claims (3). Darned those regulators. They take all the fun out of marketing functional foods. The list goes on and on. Whether it is vitamin waters, or micro-encapsulated fish oil, vitamin D, etc., trying to put ill-tasting nutritional supplements that have some proven benefits into foods and charge the consumer a higher price is never going to work.
Q: Can the taste of functional foods be improved?
A: To prevent the poor taste, you have to microencapsulate the supplement to make it sound high-tech, (they call it nanotechnology) and this costs a lot of money. Adding the bad-tasting nutritional supplement without the microencapsulation to a food makes it taste worse (unless you add a lot of sugar at the same time, of course eroding all the potential health benefits of the supplement). Finally, the consumer will only buy this new functional food if it’s the same price as what they usually purchase.
Q: Do you think functional foods will continue to be popular, or will they become a fad that eventually fades away?
A: In my opinion, I hope people will cook more for themselves cooking in their own kitchens using ingredients bought in the periphery of the supermarket, take only the nutritional supplements that have proven to be effective at the therapeutic level to produce real health benefits (for example, fish oil and polyphenols). Now you have real functional foods that finally work at a lower cost than you would pay for in the supermarket. And that’s a radical new food trend that just might work.
1. Crozier SJ, Preston AG, Hurst JW, Payne MJ, Mann J, Hainly L, and Miller DL. “Cacao seeds are a ‘super fruit’: A comparative analysis of various fruit powders and products.” Chem Central J 5:5 (2011)
2. Horovitz B. “Dannon’s Activia, DanActive health claims draw $21M fine.” USA Today. December 15, 2010
3. Wyatt E. “Regulators Call Health Claims in Pom Juice Ads Deceptive.” New York Times. September 27, 2010
Thank you to Kayla Reinstein, a dietetic intern for North Shore-Long Island Jewish Hospital-for her assistance in this post.
What’s your favorite functional food?
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