Naturally nutritious

naturally nutritious

Donna Berry


The rather conservative and highly scrutinized dairy industry recently received a great break from the “food police”–The Center for Science in the Public Interest. On July 18, not only did CSPI urge FDA to halt the sale of dozens of “functional fonds” that contain ingredients (mostly botanicals) not considered to be safe by the agency, but in its 158-page report, CSPI also requested that FDA order manufacturers to stop making false and misleading claims about their products.

“Food companies are spiking fruit drinks, breakfast cereals and snack foods with illegal ingredients and then misleading consumers about their health benefits,” stated Bruce Silverglade, CSPI director of legal affairs.

“Herbs are medicines that don’t belong (in these foods),” added Varro Tyler, distinguished professor emeritus at Purdue University, Lafayette, Ind. “Companies that add herbs to foods to exploit consumer interest in alternative medicine are acting irresponsibly.”

Basically, if the herbal doses in such foods are strong enough to affect health, then there’s a danger of overdose. Ironically, if they are not that strong, then processors are making bogus promises, which amounts to false advertising.

CSPI’s comments came on the coattails of a General Accounting Office report that strongly criticized FDA’s regulation of functional foods. GAO is urging FDA to enact more regulations on functional foods, suggesting that they be regulated differently than conventional foods.

Contrary to CSPI’s response, the Grocery Manufacturers of America believes that the GAO report provides insufficient evidence to justify such new regulations. This group believes that “functional foods” is a marketing term, not a regulatory term.

The National Food Processors Assn.’s position on all foods, functional and conventional, is that their ingredients must be safe, and any claims made concerning a food must be truthful, non-misleading and supported by sound science.

“Health claims and structure-function claims on food labels provide important information that can be used by consumers to create more healthful diets,” says Rhona Applebaum, NFPA executive v.p. of scientific and regulatory affairs. “FDA already has full enforcement authority to ensure that such claims for foods are scientifically supported and do not mislead consumers.”

What it comes down to is that FDA is not paying close attention to those foods classified as functional. The fact is, when everyday foods are fortified with non-regulated ingredients consumers are faced with the threat of overdose. Consumers can regulate how many pills of St. John’s Wart they pop, but they can be oblivious to the dose when it is consumed via multiple glasses of iced tea on a hot summer day.

Indeed, this emerging better-for-you, preventative medicine food category, which was valued at $9.2 billion in 1998 by Datamonitor, needs some regulation. Such generalized, derogatory comments from consumer activist groups prevent truly “functional foods,” like naturally nutritious dairy products, from effectively being promoted and marketed.

Functional foods are no fad

By whatever name, there’s no doubt that “Functional foods are clearly a trend,” says Eric Newman, national sales mgr., Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative, La Farge, Wis. “With all the information available on health and wellness, there is plenty of evidence that consumers are looking toward self help and natural cures, with a focus on prevention as the cure.”

Dave Owens, senior v.p. of strategy, Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield, Ill., agrees, “Functional foods are clearly not a fad.” However, Kraft believes this category is growing but not exploding.

The company defines functional foods as being. A food or beverage that provides a health benefit that goes beyond the general nutrition of the base form.

The only Kraft dairy product that fits this definition is its pasteurized process cheese slices with twice the calcium. However, he says, the company ahs quite a few R&D initiatives in this area. “Dairy products are a good carrier for functional ingredients, as well as messages that revolve around health. It will continue to be an opportunity.

“However, adding functional ingredients to food products doesn’t cause consumers to run out and buy them,” Owens says. “The food has to taste good and meet their needs.”

This is confirmed by Linda Gilbert, president of Des Moines, Iowa-based HealthFocus Inc., an agency that tracks consumer trends. In a recent survey concerning the in-store supermarket, Most shoppers today choose foods for health reasons, but they are less willing than ever to compromise taste,” says Gilbert. According to the survey, 10% of shoppers always choose foods for health reasons, 60% usually do and 24% sometimes do. Only 6% rarely or never choose foods for health reasons.

Other dominant consumer priorities include the continuing self-medication and self-education movement, nutritional individualization based on life stages and health conditions, and a practice of looking for nutritional solutions to ‘fill in the gaps’ resulting from hurried lifestyles and eating habits,” according to Gilbert. Fortunately, Dairy foods have strong equities in health and wellness.”

According to Gilbert, shoppers are looking for a variety of health benefits from the foods and beverages they buy and use. About 75% of shoppers agree that some foods contain active components that can help to reduce risk of disease or improve health. They find specific associations between foods/nutrients and health claims highly believable. More than half of s hoppers are interested in learning about good-for-you components of foods, from the cancer preventing chemicals in grains and produce, to herbs, to active cultures in yogurt.

“The health benefit claim of a functional food product should be based on sound science,” says Swee Seet, dir, of R&D, Suiza Foods Corp., Dallas. “The product should contain the declared dosages and the active ingredients should be bioavailable.”

Probably even more important, “The food form and type has to be right to be readily accepted by the mainstream consumers. Ultimately, delivering the right sensory attributes, such as color and notably taste, will determine the longevity of the product in the market,” he adds.

Early this year, Suiza introduced a line of value-added fluid milk products that are specially formulated to fit consumers’ varying lifestyles, tastes and nutritional requirements. For example, kidsmilk [TM] is 2% reduced-fat milk formulated with 67% more calcium and 50% more of 11 vitamins found in regular milk.

More recently, Parmalat USA, Wallington, N.J., introduced three new milks that the company says are fortified for “beauty, health and taste.” For example, Milk-E is fortified with vitamin E and biotin to help promote a healthful skin complexion and delay the aging process of the skin. Parmalat Lactose Free Plus contains inulin, a natural dietary fiber, and the probiotic cultures acidophilus and bifidus. Together these ingredients aid in digestion. (For more information on inulin, read this month’s Lab Talk on p.33.)

“We see functional nutrition as an excellent way to include a wide range of vitamins and nutrients into general diets, as well as special diets,” says Aldo Uva, Parmalat pres. and CEO. “The easiest way to include nutrients in a diet is through wholesome milk.

“(Our new) functional dairy products are leading the industry by providing nutritional benefits within a product that should already be included in everyone’s daily diet,” Uva adds.

Organic Valley’s Newman adds, “Functional foods offer busy consumers a way to fit health into their daily routine without having to remember to pop pills.”

Opportunity for dairy

Back to the current issue. Why is this “functional food” controversy a break for the dairy industry? For starters, CSPI was targeting familiar foods usually consumed in large quantities that contain botanical ingredients like ginseng and Echinacea. (Ben & Jerry’s frozen Smoothies, which are made with yogurt and contain botanicals, were on CSPI’s list of offending products.) Probiotic cultures, calcium and vitamins typically associated with dairy foods were not mentioned.

Interestingly, calcium was scrutinized a month earlier in a Washington Post article, which raised the specter of taking in too much calcium from fortified foods. The article reports that there have been about 30 cases of calcium overdose. The National Academy of Sciences set the upper limit for calcium intake at 2,500 mg daily. The article explains that depending on the brands of foods you choose, it is quite easy to pass this upper limit.

The fact is that most consumers do not get anywhere near the recommended dietary allowance of 1,000 to 1,300 mg. However, if food manufacturers continue to add calcium to foods where it may not belong, (i.e. Unilever just introduced Country Crock Spread with Calcium), overdosing could become a serious problem

Right now, dairy marketers need to get the message to consumers that calcium from cows milk is the best source of this essential nutrient.

“Our findings show that 6 calcium fortification of soy beverages usually fails to produce a calcium source comparable to cows milk in terms of physical properties or absorbability,” says Robert Heaney, professor of medicine at Creighton University Omaha, Neb., and author of a recently published study examining how the body utilizes calcium. “Even if a label indicates the two beverages have the same calcium per serving, the bioavailability, or the amount of calcium absorbed, from the soy beverage will be significantly less–typically 25% less absorbed compared to cows milk.”

Gregory Miller, v.p. of nutrition research at Dairy Management Inc., Rosemont, Ill., adds, “This research provides more evidence that calcium from cows milk is the gold standard. Milk provides not only one of the richest sources of well-absorbed calcium, but it contains eight other essential nutrients, including vitamin D that helps enhance calcium absorption.”

Prior to the Washington Post article, Miller wrote a letter to FDA Commissioner Jane Henney, expressing concern about the “rampant increase of calcium-fortified foods in the marketplace.” This letter reiterated concerns previously expressed in a 1995 letter on the same topic.

“It is important that FDA monitor the impact of current levels of calcium fortification on individual subgroups and the population as a whole. This is necessary to protect the public from unacceptably high (as well as low) nutrient intakes and possible adverse health effects,” he wrote.

In addition to dairy-related ingredients not making CSPI’s hit list, the dairy industry’s conservative attitude toward associating itself with the term functional foods is also proving to be a bonus. The preferred, less controversial descriptor by the dairy industry is value-added. The negative press on functional foods is the dairy industry’s big chance to promote its wares on the basis of inherent nutrition, as well as historically recognized fortification.

Without knowing so, “Dairy foods had a head start in the functional foods arena,” says Suiza’s Seet. “They were a player long before the terms functional food or nutraceutical became familiar. Fluid milk, for example, has been fortified with vitamins A and D for a long time.”

Miller says, “Dairy foods are packed with a lot of nutrients and other components that provide health benefits. Dairy processors would be wise to better use the Nutrition Facts box to let consumers know this. They need to list all the nutrients found in dairy to better educate consumers. We know that milk is a good source of calcium, plus eight other nutrients. Yet, consumers can’t find them on the label.”

The HealthFocus survey showed that the Nutrition Facts box is the only part of the label that consumers believe is factual, and not intended to try and sell them something.

Gaining confidence

Proactively, the two-year old Research-based Dietary Ingredient Assn., in collaboration with the Life Sciences Research Office has scheduled a November conference of industry and academic scientists to discuss a third-party review process for substantiating claims used for nutritional products.

“Health-promoting nutritional products are proliferating in the marketplace and consumers are seeking assurances that the products they buy are safe and efficacious,” says Robert Hoerr, pres. of RDIA and chairman and chief technology officer of GalaGen Inc., Arden Hills, Minn. “Our goal is to create a regulatory environment for functional foods, ingredients and dietary supplements that rewards companies for investing in science and assures consumers that the products they buy have met standards of safety and effectiveness.”

Hoerr’s company, GalaGen, originated as a research and development group of Land O’Lakes Inc. The group was dedicated to studying components from dairy cows’ first milk; or colostrum. Having spun off as an independent company, GalaGen’s focus is to develop and market innovative, dairy-based, nutritional ingredients that enhance immunity and promote wellness.

“It’s time for the dairy industry to work more proactively in the area of functional foods,” says Hoerr. “Consumers need to feel confident that the promises made by dairy foods are met.”

Bill Aimutis, v.p.-Midwest Operations, Land O’Lakes Inc., adds, “As more positive clinical evidence is published in the area of functional foods, health care providers, insurance companies and consumers are becoming more aware of the efficacy of these products. There are many technical and regulatory hurdles yet to be identified and cleared, but the future remains bright for these products.”

DMI’s Miller comments, “Dairy farmer-funded research is providing new insights into the health benefits of dairy food consumption. Dairy foods (some day) will be valued not only for the traditional nutrition package they deliver, but also for other functional components like conjugated linoleic acid, sphingolipids and functional peptides.”

Today, the tradition of using probiotic cultures to promote human health is supported by strong scientific evidence. And, indeed, calcium’s role in bone health is well substantiated.

“Dairy foods are an excellent carrier or adjunct to active components of functional foods because the consumer identifies dairy products as being healthy for them on their own,” Aimutis says.

If dairy foods play well and fairly, they will survive the watchful eye of CSPI, and at the same time gain consumer confidence as the real functional food.


COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning