It's the hottest thing at the supermarket right now: food that sounds like medicine. These days everything from soup to tortilla chips contain ingredients that are supposed to make you healthier. The question is -- are these products really better for you or is this just a bunch of marketing hype?
CBS This Morning Consumer Correspondent Herb Weisbaum reports.
Adding vitamins and minerals to foods isn't exactly a new idea. We all use enriched flour, eat fortified cereal and drink fortified milk, and don't think anything of it. But now there's a whole new crop of products with added herbs and botanical ingredients. They're called "functional foods."
Americans will spend about $10 billion this year on functional foods, and yet the health claims used to sell them are often bold and unproven.
Got a problem? Chances are there's some food that claims it can help.
Companies can say things like, Let Good Mood tea with St. John's Wort put a smile on your face. Or, Get your brain going with the Gingko Biloba in Intelli-Juice. And, when it's time to relax, munch some Kava Kava chips.
Industry-watcher Lynn Dornblaser of New Products News says manufacturers are using functional foods to target aging baby boomers.
"They're looking for that magic pill. They're looking for something to make them feel better, to keep them from feeling bad, to make their skin look better and their hair look better, to make them function better," said Dornblaser.
Manufacturers are ready to feed that demand. At this year's giant supermarket trade show, we found all sorts of new functional foods, from Snapple fruit drinks fortified with herbs and antioxidants to Ben & Jerry's Frozen Smoothies with added botanicals.
At the show, Kellogg's unveiled its new Ensemble line, 22 products from cookies to pasta that are enhanced with psyllium, a natural soluble fiber that fights cholesterol.
Kellogg says it's just giving people what they want, food that delivers more than good nutrition.
"Consumers have been using food to improve their health for centuries and this is really the next step in that process," said Steve Benoit of Kellogg's.
You've probably heard about the two new cholesterol-fighting bread spreads that just hit the market, Benecol and Take Control. Both contain a new ingredient, a soybean extract that can help lower your cholesterol level, claims the commercial for the products.
Because they used a new food additive, the Food and Drug Administration would not let Benecol or Take Control on the market until the manufacturers could prove they were safe. But with most functional foods, no one is checking the ingredients. No one is verifying the claims.
That worries consumer advocate Bruce Silverglade of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. He says this marketing free-for-all is letting 21st century quackery take hold.
"Right now there are no stndards, there are no limits and many very questionable ingredients and misleading claims are being made and the public health potential of these products is being squandered," said Silverglade.
To avoid federal regulation, some food companies actually call their products dietary supplements.
Hain Kitchen Prescription Chicken Broth and Noodles sure looks like soup but the company says it's an herbal supplement that supports your immune system.
"This isn't about health. This is about selling more food products," said Marion Nestle, chair of the nutrition department at New York University.
What is the harm in putting things like ginseng in cereal or St. John's Wort in potato chips? Nestle said, " Well, I don't know whether there really is any harm in it, but it may be that people think they're getting something really special when they may or may not be."
If every single product has some nutritional claim made for it, how are people going to know which claims are real, and which claims aren't real?
Right now, you can't. So buyer beware! Functional foods cannot cure a dysfunctional diet. Adding a few herbs won't make a junk food a health food. Snapple Sun has beta-carotene and echinacea in it. But check the label and the first two ingredients are water and high fructose corn syrup.
According to the nutrition experts, the health conscious shopper should rely on nature's functional foods, fruits and vegetables.
In most cases these type of foods are not harmful to anyone. But as more and more products add this stuff it could be a problem. You may not even know how much of a supplement you're taking because that information may not be on the label, no one is checking. And furthermore, who knows what the recommended dosages for any of these supplements are?
Reported by Herb Weisbaum
©1999, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved