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Saturday September 09 12:34 PM EDT
Food for Thought

By Jennifer Thomas
HealthSCOUT Reporter

SATURDAY, Sept. 9 (HealthSCOUT) -- You've probably heard of comfort foods. But how about tortilla chips that put you in a good mood, coffee that helps you lose weight or chewing gum that improves concentration?

Products that promise to improve your health beyond standard nutrition or just plain make you feel better are called nutraceuticals or "functional foods," and they're one of the hottest trends in the food and beverage industry. Last year, functional foods were a $5.5 billion market, up 54 percent from 1988, according to Kalorama Information, a market research company. By 2004, functional foods are expected to grow to a $7.8 billion industry.

The products contain herbal additives, along with vitamins, minerals or other nutrients -- from tortilla chips containing St. John's wort, which some studies have shown relieves depression, to coffee with chromium picolinate, which is claimed to speed metabolism, to chewing gum with phospholipids, a type of fat that plays a role in nervous-system function.

But can corn puffs with ginseng or hard candy with fiber actually be good for you? This latest food fad is raising concerns among scientists and consumer advocates who say consumers don't really know what they're eating.

No one knows exactly what dosage of herbs provides health benefits, says Dr. Lawrence Kedes, executive director of the Institute for Genetic Medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Similarly, the long-term effects of many herbs are still not known.

"There isn't good data or scientific evidence that nutraceuticals are beneficial," Kedes says. "There are some highly public people saying there is good evidence, but there is really not."

Another area of concern, critics say, is that nutraceuticals aren't regulated as strictly as pharmaceuticals. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have a definition for what constitutes a nutraceutical. In 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act exempted dietary supplements from having to prove their effectiveness.

And many nutraceuticals avoid FDA scrutiny by claiming to be dietary supplements. Unless a product makes a claim that it can treat disease -- which would put it into the category of a drug -- many products can largely escape having to prove their effectiveness.

"It has put these products in a regulatory gray area," says an FDA spokeswoman. "Many of the ingredients are not approved as food additives. It's a confusing issue that we are looking at now."

Hungry for herbs

Low-fat, non-fat, organic and sugar-free products have been sold for years as more healthful alternatives to ordinary food.

But about 10 years ago, the popularity of herbal remedies exploded.

Savvy marketers have since been adding supplements to foods ranging from fortified breakfast cereals, to corn chips laced with the pulverized roots of kava, a South Pacific pepper plant that purports to have a relaxing effect.

"Our basic concern is that the dietary supplements may not be safe," says Ilene Ringel Heller, senior staff attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "We don't know if they're going to do anything at all, so there may be some consumer fraud here. On the other hand, if they are potent, there could be some toxicity to them."

Given those concerns, the center has asked the FDA to ban more than 75 functional foods that contain herbs because the ingredients haven't been proven safe.

Members of the nutraceutical industry defend their products.

Robert Ehrlich is president of Robert's Gourmet Foods, the Roslyn, N.Y.-based maker of St. John's Wort Tortilla Chips and other snack foods with herbal additives.

While Ehrlich acknowledges the small amount of St. John's wort you'll ingest from munching a few chips isn't enough to relieve depression, he says his products can have a "placebo effect" -- people feel better because they think they're doing something good for them.

"There is no health risk in any of these snacks," Ehrlich says. "The consumer is demanding this. As baby boomers age, they are looking for things to enhance their lives. They want longer, healthier lives. Twenty-five years ago, people wanted their Doritos and McDonald's. Now they want products that help them with their skin, hair, eyes, cardiovascular health, memory and longevity."

But many doctors aren't buying into the industry line. Humans are physiologically programmed to extract everything we need from regular food and that's why we've evolved so successfully, Kedes says.

"For the vast majority of people, a normal, balanced diet of fat, protein and carbohydrates will give you all the vitamins, minerals and dietary requirements that you need," Kedes says. "We are not lacking anything."

What to Do: For information about eating a healthful, balanced diet, visit the American Dietetic Association Web site. For information about nutraceuticals from an industry standpoint, visit the American Nutraceutical Association.


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