The Inventor of Functional Foods

Japan—The Inventor of Functional Foods
        Regulatory Requirements
        Marketplace Implications and Consumer Impact
United States—A Good System Gone Bad
United Kingdom—Chaos Reigns Supreme

  • The FOSHU approval system, though faulty, should be made mandatory for all functional foods.

The FOSHU system represents an attempt to establish a formal approval system for functional foods that contain specific ingredients proven to have beneficial health effects. However, the sales of non-FOSHU-approved health foods greatly exceeds that of FOSHU-approved products. Moreover, the former category contains numerous products of dubious benefit. The system should thus be made mandatory to achieve its objectives of improving the health of the Japanese people and eliminating misleading health claims.

  • The fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugar content of FOSHU-approved foods should be limited.

The MHW should not approve foods with added functional ingredients that contain significant amounts of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, or added sugars. Because good health depends on a diet that is low in such nutrients, it makes little sense to encourage consumption of foods high in those nutrients by allowing manufacturers to promote such foods on the basis of added functional ingredients.

  • Standards for FOSHU approvals should be tightened.

The MHW should upgrade requirements for the type of scientific evidence that must be submitted to obtain FOSHU approval. While double-blind clinical trials need not be required in all cases, rigorous scientific testing should be an element of FOSHU approval. FOSHU approvals should be granted only in cases where there is significant agreement within the scientific community regarding the benefit of a particular ingredient.

  • Consumption of conventional foods should be encouraged.

In addition to facilitating the promotion of FOSHU foods, the MHW should encourage consumers to consume a diet rich in healthful conventional foods, especially fruits, vegetables, and fish. There is no question that such diets can help consumers maintain and improve their health and form the basis for sound nutrition. In many cases, there may be no need for consumers to spend money on functional foods with added ingredients. Sound nutrition based on conventional dietary changes should serve as the foundation of the Ministry's efforts to reduce the incidence of chronic disease.

In conclusion, some might argue that implementing such recommendations could discourage the development and marketing of functional foods. However, the market for functional foods in Japan is strong.(47) It is likely that companies would not abandon that market even if confronted with mandatory regulatory requirements aimed at protecting the public. Rather than discouraging the development of functional foods, such requirements would channel the energies of companies into producing products that provide bona fide health benefits and that are accompanied by scientifically valid health claims. The marketing of such products would increase the legitimacy of functional foods and help fuel a demand for such products. Thus, such reforms will benefit both the consumer and the food industry.

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