Consumers devouring nutrient-spiked foods, drinks

Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Tropicana Orange Juice, Honey Nut Cheerios and vitaminwater are arranged for a studio photograph, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009 in New York. Food and beverage makers increasingly are spiking their products with vitamins and other nutrients, and are finding a healthy appetite in consumers. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

MILWAUKEE -- From heart-friendly margarines to sugary cereals that strengthen bones, once-demonized foods are being spiked with nutrients to give them a healthier glow -- and consumers are biting, even on some that are little more than dressed-up junk food.

A report released Aug. 20 said even in a weak economy, people will pay a premium for products seen as preventing a health problem or providing a good alternative to sodas and empty-calorie snacks. The report is from research firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

These products include winners and sinners: juices that supply children with needed calcium, but also candy disguised as granola bars with just a smidgen of much-ballyhooed nutrients.

The industry calls these products "nutraceuticals" or "functional foods." Critics say they could lead people to consume too much of certain nutrients, plus too many calories and fats.

New York University food scientist Marion Nestle calls them "calorie distractors."

"Functional foods are about marketing, not health," she said. "They delude people into thinking that these things are healthy," and they often eat more than is wise, she said.

Her shame list includes a candy bar pumped with caffeine and B vitamins, marketed as an "energy boost," and fattening ice creams enriched with calcium and helpful bacteria called probiotics.

Local nutritionist Janet Anders said in an e-mail interview that adding these fortified foods to our diets ignores the real problem.

"Americans are looking for a quick fix to major health problems. We may be short on vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals because we just don't want to eat our fruits and vegetables," said Anders, a Wellness Dietitian at Fitness Plus.

Raina Childers, a dietitian and nutrition services coordinator for HealthPoint Fitness, said in an e-mail that Americans would be better off reducing their intake of refined and processed foods and focusing on fruits and veggies. But she added that adding nutrients to some foods isn't always a bad thing.

"Imagine being able to drink a beverage you already like and get some of your daily vitamin needs met," she said. "Or perhaps you are lactose intolerant and see that you can get a considerable amount of your daily calcium through drinking your favorite orange juice.

"When food items become available to the consumer that meet specific preferences or tolerances and have added nutrition via fortification, they begin to fly off the shelves at local grocery stores."

And they have.

Functional foods account for more than $27 billion in sales a year -- about 5 percent of the U.S. food market, the Pricewaterhouse report says. Estimates of future growth range from 8.5 to 20 percent per year, far more than the 1 to 4 percent forecast for the food industry as a whole.

Fiber, for digestive health, has been a big draw. In 2007, General Mills expanded its Fiber One brand into bars with appealing flavors such as Oat s& Caramel and Oats & Chocolate. Sales exceeded $100 million in the first year.

In 2004, the company added whole grain to its entire Big G cereal line -- 50 to 60 brands. Kathy Wiemer, a company dietitian, argues that a cereal such as Lucky Charms, made from whole grain oats and containing less sugar than many yogurts, is a healthy breakfast choice.

"There are some misperceptions around foods that contain sugar," she said. "And we know that consumers are far below the recommended intakes" for fibers and whole grains.

Among beverages, vitamin-enhanced versions of Tropicana Pure Premium juices now account for 40 percent of Tropicana sales and the share is growing, said Dave DeCecco, a spokesman for Tropicana's maker, PepsiCo Inc. A children's version has added vitamins A, C, D and E plus folic acid, potassium and calcium.

Coca-Cola Inc. makes an enhanced Minute Maid orange juice with a host of vitamins plus zinc, and an apple juice marketed for children with multiple vitamins and calcium. Kraft Foods Inc. sells a version of Capri Sun drinks with added antioxidant vitamins.

Soft drinks, including vitamin waters and sports beverages, now claim a third of the nutraceutical market, according to the report. They have gained as carbonated soft drink sales have declined.

However, ho"plus" products can have minuses, such as sweetened "silly beverages that cost $2 and $3 apiece with added ginkgo or caffeine or chromium, a supposed appetite suppressant," said David Schardt, senior nutritionist for the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"To be sure, however, that the cost and nutritional benefit of the functional food or beverage is worth it, we often need to dive deeper and look at the nutrition facts label," Anders said. Consumers need to "make sure we are checking out the ingredients list as well as things like calories, sugars, sodium, calories from fat etc."

The federal Food and Drug Administration is paying more attention to health claims on functional foods. The FDA recently sent General Mills a letter saying Cheerios was being "promoted for conditions that cause it to be a drug" -- lowering cholesterol 4 percent in six weeks.

General Mills said it is working with the FDA, that its fiber health claim "has been FDA-approved for 12 years."

Several nutrition scientists say they hope the agency will go after hyped claims of foods and ingredients that can "boost immunity" -- a vague concept with little hard science to back it up, Schardt said.

Southeast Missourian features editor Chris Harris contributed to this report.

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