energy drink, nutraceutical, functional foods
AP Photo/Larry Crowe

Nutrient-Enriched Snack Foods Entice American Consumers

November 18, 2009 01:00 PM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
“Functional foods” are attracting consumers across the country with their promise of a healthier lifestyle, though many may be little more than glorified junk foods.

The Nutraceutical Promise

A report released by Pricewaterhouse Coopers found that despite the recession, people are willing to invest in foods described as “nutraceuticals,” or “functional foods”—products that allegedly help “prevent a health problem or provid[e] a good alternative to sodas and empty-calorie snacks,” Marilynn Marchione reports for The Associated Press.

According to the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS), Dr. Stephen DeFelice created the term “nutraceutical” in 1989 to signify the union between “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical.” Practically, it refers to “food [that] aids in the prevention and/or treatment of disease(s) and/or disorder(s).” The products that PwC’s report refers to, however, are foods that promise health benefits while adding a series of unhealthy ingredients into the mix. These products, which include sugary granola bars, calcium-enriched juices and ice creams, caffeine-laden products that promise to boost energy and many others, target consumers who want to achieve the health benefits of nutritious foods without drastically altering their dietary habits.

Pricewaterhouse Coopers highlights the investment opportunities in the area of functional foods, which represent 5 percent of the overall food market and account for $27 billion in yearly sales. PwC predicts a growth for the sector “within the range of 8.5% and 20% per year,” compared to a 1 to 4 percent growth for the general food industry, Nutraceuticals World reports. The report also anticipates that “as consumers shift their attention to take a more involved, preventative approach toward their health, they will continue adopting functional foods.”

Reactions: Are nutraceuticals a marketing ploy?

Many critics, however, distrust the premise behind nutraceuticals, suggesting that they might lead people to overdose on their consumption of certain nutrients and vitamins while adding too many calories and fats. Marion Neste, a food scientist from New York University, considers functional foods to be misleading, and more concerned with marketing than with providing an actually healthy product. “[Functional foods] delude people into thinking that these things are healthy,” she told the AP.

David Schardt, senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, also condemns the propaganda buildup surrounding these products, and the way they manipulate consumers. “It’s really a junk food dressed up to look prettier than it is,” he told the AP. “People are going to be deceived into thinking a lot of these products are especially healthy for them when there’s little evidence they are. There’s more hype to these products than there is reality.”

Similarly, Brian Wansink, a food marketing expert at Cornell University, points toward the danger of over-consumption that comes with the belief that some foods will actually help cure certain health conditions. “People are sort of losing the point of why they’re eating certain foods,” he explained for the AP. Some functional foods that promote a healthier heart or cholesterol level, for instance, can lead consumers to “[eat] it like it is medicine, so we end up eating too much of it.”

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