Japan—The Inventor of Functional Foods
United States—A Good System Gone Bad
United Kingdom—Chaos Reigns Supreme

Food processors are increasingly marketing so-called functional foods, i.e., foods with added ingredients that claim to provide a health benefit to consumers beyond the benefits provided by ordinary foods themselves. Such products have also been referred to as “nutraceuticals” or “designer foods.”

Foods with ingredients added to support express health claims are already on the market in Japan, Europe, and the United States. For example, in the U.S., breakfast cereals with psyllium, a grain rich in soluble fiber, claim that they can help reduce cholesterol when consumed as part of a low fat, low cholesterol diet. In Japan, however, cocoa-based products claim to provide the same benefit.

There is no question that some foods with added components may offer particular health benefits. For example, the importance of adding vitamins and minerals to processed foods has long been recognized as vital to compensating for nutrient deficiencies and maintaining good health. Iodized salt and vitamin-fortified milk were, in a sense, the first functional foods.

However, in some ways, the term functional food may be misleading because almost all foods, regardless of whether they contain added ingredients, affect health by providing calories and nutrients.(1) Furthermore, health authorities have recognized for decades that certain types of foods may be especially beneficial or detrimental to health. For example, authorities have recognized that diets rich in fruits and vegetables can help reduce the risk of heart disease while diets rich in meat, meat products, dairy products, cakes and cookies, which are high in saturated fat, can increase the risk of heart disease. Thus, most foods have an effect on health and well being and can be considered “functional.”

Nonetheless, as more and more is learned about the relationship between diet and disease, researchers are trying to discover the precise substances in certain foods that seem to offer nutritive value and provide protection against a host of ailments and chronic diseases.(2) However, research in this area is still in its infancy, and in most cases, scientifically valid health claims cannot yet be made.(3)

In brief, despite the growing popularity of functional foods, scientists have identified few specific substances, or combinations of substances, that can reduce the risk of disease. The food industry, however, is eager to market products that offer special benefits. The industry is betting that consumers, after years of being bombarded with negative health messages to cut back on fat, cholesterol, and sodium, are ready to warm up to foods that emphasize the positive benefits of newly added ingredients, even if the scientific community has not yet concluded that they are truly beneficial.

Will consumers benefit from the development of functional foods? That depends. Some products might lead to significant public health advances, and it makes sense to foster their development, marketing, and consumption. On the other hand, the absence of convincing scientific research, pent-up consumer demand, and inadequate regulatory controls may create a situation in which the marketplace is flooded with products of dubious benefit and exaggerated claims. In brief, if governments do not require functional ingredients to be proven effective (and safe) before they are added to the food supply, if claims are not required to be adequately substantiated, if functional ingredients are simply added to foods high in fat, cholesterol, sodium, or sugar, then dubious functional foods may merely amount to 21st Century quackery.(4)

This report examines current trends in the regulation and marketing of functional foods in Japan, the United States (U.S.) and the United Kingdom (UK), three of the largest markets for such products.(Table 1) The approaches taken by government and industry are different in each of these countries but share one common element — all seem to be failing to protect consumers from dubious health claims and questionable ingredients.

After reviewing regulatory requirements and marketing trends in each country, this report recommends steps that should be taken by governments to ensure that the development and promotion of functional foods truly benefits the public's health.

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Copyright 1998 by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. References available by request.