Are Functional Foods Extra Nutritious?

Americans spent $16 billion last year on fortified foods called "functional foods" or nutraceuticals.

They contain extra ingredients that some people claim go beyond basic nutrition. Vitamins and minerals are being added to a variety of foods including juices, cereals and snacks. But some companies also add herbal supplements, and that's raising questions about safety.

Ellie Krieger, a registered dietitian and nutrition expert and host of "Living Better," a syndicated TV show, spoke with The Saturday Early Show about some of these foods.

Functional foods are one of the hottest and fastest growing areas of the food industry, Krieger says. Nutritionists, food scientists, food marketers and others have been looking into how today's traditional foods may open the doors to a healthier tomorrow.

Krieger talked specifically about some fortified juices and cereals, and new butter-flavored spreads that reportedly lower cholesterol.

Spreads like Benecol, which taste like and can be used in the place of butter, contain an ingredient that has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels in the bloodstream. Krieger says they work by blocking the absorption of cholesterol in the body.

Cereals are often fortified. Quaker Toasted Oatmeal Cereal, for instance, is one which is fortified with folic acid. Folic acid has been shown to prevent birth defects, and the Quaker cereal has 100 percent of the daily value recommended for pregnant women, Krieger says.

Some other cereals include herbs whose benefits are not as clearly defined. Krieger points to Mango Passion Crisp Cereal, which is fortified with the herbs St. John’s Wort and Kava. St. John’s Wort is essentially an antidepressant, she says, while Kava has sedative effects. "I don’t know if you want to start your morning with a sedative," Krieger says.

Juices are another way to get extra vitamins and minerals. Calcium-enriched orange juice not only helps you get vitamin C, but a serving also offers 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance of calcium, which is good for bone health.

Some juices are enriched with herbs, however. Hansen’s Healthy Start Super Juice has echinacea, for instance. Kreiger says you don’t want to take echinacea every day. Other drinks, like Snapple Fire, have extracts of herbs like guarana, ginkgo biloba and ginseng.

These drinks often carry claims that they provide the body with a natural energy burst, but Krieger says there is no solid proof that these herbs can do that.

Krieger has some tips for people interested in fortified foods. Read the label, she says, and be familiar with the added ingredients. If you aren’t familiar with the ingredients--and sometimes if you are--be skeptical of health claims. Just because a well-known company is marketing a product doesn’t mean it’s safe, she says.

Finally, Kreiger says to consider your dietary intake. If you’re eating a well-balancd diet, ask yourself whether you really need that fortified food.

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