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Health Food Truths

“Low-carbohydrate” pasta is in a category of health foods known in the trade as “lesser evils” – foods with fewer unwanted calories, fat, trans fat, sugars, salt, or carbohydrates. There is now a whole industry of such products, as well as health foods classified as “natural,” “organic,” and “functional.” But are these foods really better for you?

In the United States, “organic” has a precise meaning established by the US Department of Agriculture. “Natural,” however, means whatever the food producer or manufacturer says it means. So-called “functional” foods – or “techno-foods” – are those to which manufacturers add omega-3 oils, artificial sweeteners, indigestible starches, cholesterol reducers, soy or milk (whey) proteins, phytochemicals, and other ingredients to enable them to take advantage of “qualified” health claims permitted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

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Sales of lesser-evil and functional foods have done well in recent years, bringing in about $85 billion in US sales in 2004. If you routinely buy such foods, you are among LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) consumers – the health food industry’s cherished demographic base. You buy low-carbohydrate products, energy and nutrition bars, vitamin- and mineral-fortified foods and beverages, soy foods, and practically anything with a health claim.

Like many people, I thought that small, innovative companies dominated functional foods. In fact, PepsiCo holds a 25% share of the market with products like Quaker cereals and fortified Tropicana juices, which qualify for FDA-approved health claims. Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft, Nestlé, and Groupe Danone all have market shares ranging from 4% to 7%.

These companies’ control of this market makes sense if you think about what they are selling. The most popular functional foods are soft drinks, sports drinks, breakfast cereals, snacks, energy bars, and juice drinks. About three-quarters of breakfast cereals make health claims for the whole grain or fiber that has been added to make them “functional.”

Moreover, as Nancy Childs, a business school professor, wrote in Nutrition Business Journal in 2004, functional foods for obesity, for example, promise their manufacturers “a double reward”: eligibility for qualified health claims and possible reimbursement under Medicare as a disease treatment. They also provide “balance to food company product portfolios, thereby limiting corporate liability on both legal and stock valuation fronts” – a reference to potential claims against companies that their products might cause obesity or poor health.

But many of these products are basically sugar water or sugary foods that might as well be cookies, with ingredients added or removed to appeal to LOHAS customers who would otherwise not buy them. A private testing laboratory, ConsumerLab.com, found that hardly any of the “vitamin waters” it tested contained what their labels said they did, and some had only 20% to 50% of the amounts of nutrients listed.

Likewise, half the fat in most power and energy bars – which bring in $2 billion in annual sales – is saturated and some is trans. Many bars targeted to low-carbohydrate dieters have misleading “net carb” calculations. Some do not disclose their content of sugar alcohols, and some have so much of these additives that they are almost certain to produce laxative effects or gas. Others are so highly fortified with vitamin A or D that ConsumerLab advises against giving them to young children.

Even if I had not seen these results and warnings, I wouldn’t eat power and energy bars, which, according to the magazine Consumer Reports , taste “gritty, chalky, or chemical.”

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I agree. When I ask friends and colleagues why they buy the bars, they say: “Because I know they are healthy and I don’t care how they taste.” Well, I do. I can’t see the point of eating indigestible vitamin-and-fiber supplemented carbohydrates flavored with artificial sweeteners. If I think I need more vitamins, I prefer to take a multivitamin supplement. If I need a hundred or so calories in a hurry, I prefer a banana, a handful of nuts, or, for that matter, a delicious candy bar.

This is not to diminish the value of some of the lesser evils – low-fat milk and yogurt, for example. But most foods posing as “health food” raise the same question as vitamin-supplemented candy: does adding vitamins really make a food better for you? Real health foods do not need to be made functional to be good for you. They are functional just the way they are.