The term “functional foods” refers to processed foods containing ingredients that supposedly aid specific bodily functions in addition to being nutritious . In the United States, functional foods have no legal definition or separate regulatory category; the FDA regulates them under the rules it applies to conventional foods. Many companies are exploiting consumer interest in self-care and “alternative medicine” by adding herbs to their food products, which may be considered “functional foods.” On June 18, 2000, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) petitioned the FDA to halt the sale of more than 70 such products  and to order manufacturers to stop making false and misleading claims. At the press conference announcing the petition, CSPI director of legal affairs Bruce Silverglade stated:
Food companies are spiking fruit drinks, breakfast cereals, and snack foods with illegal ingredients and then misleading consumers about their health benefits. It’s shameful that respected companies are selling modern-day snake oil
and herbal expert Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., ScD., warned:
Herbs are medicines that don’t belong in soft drinks, breakfast cereals, and snack chips. We do not add Viagra to soup. We do not spray Prozac on corn chips, yet numerous companies claim to add herbs strong enough to affect health to foods eaten daily by children, pregnant women and others who could be at risk. If the herb doses really are strong enough to affect health, that “is a disaster waiting to happen,” he said. If the doses aren’t that strong, then the foods are safe but deceptive.
CSPI’s targeted products include:
- Snapple’s “Moon” Tea Drink containing kava kava is claimed to “enlighten your senses.” Kava kava has been a factor in several arrests for driving while intoxicated (DWI). It is also used in Apple “Eve’s Tribal Tonics,” “Relaxation Cocktail” and Hansen’s “d•stress” sparkling drink.
- Ben & Jerry’s “Tropic of Mango Smoothie” contains echinacea, which can cause allergic reactions, including asthma attacks, and may counteract the effects of drugs that suppress the immune system.
- Arizona’s “Rx Memory Elixer” containing ginkgo biloba. This product is labeled as “mind-enhancing.” Ginkgo biloba has anticoagulant properties Taking it with anticoagulant drugs may increase the risk of excessive bleeding or stroke.
- Procter & Gamble’s “spire Energy with VitaLift Green Tea and Juice Beverage,” containing guarana extract, is promised to provide “smooth, steady, sustained energy.” The FDA has stated that guarana is not considered a safe ingredient for use in food.
A recent U.S. General Accounting Office report urges the FDA to halt misleading claims for functional foods and to require warning labels where appropriate. The report also urges Congress to require companies to notify the FDA before using new “functional” ingredients .
- Hasler CM. Functional foods: Their role in disease prevention and health promotion. Food Technology 52:63-70, 1998.
- Functional foods named in the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s complaints to the Food and Drug Administration
- Food safety: Improvements needed in overseeing the safety of dietary supplements and “functional foods.” U.S. General Accountng Office, July 2000.
This article was posted on 7/22/00