New York Times takes on Foods with Benefits

The HealthGal Health Guide
  • On May 15th the New York Times business section devoted the front page (and a full interior page) to foods that make health claims.  Certainly a regular food shopper faces shelves filled with foods that promise to:

    • Lower cholesterol
    • Promote health
    • Help to build bones
    • Reduce risk of heart disease
    • Improve digestion
    • Help digestion to occur more comfortably
    • Help you to meet daily targets of a certain vitamin, mineral or nutrient


    So is the fountain of health to be found in the many processed foods that occupy the shelves of your local supermarket?  Not so fast, says the FCC.  Foods that contain so-called "extra nutrients" are called functional foods though the phrase "foods with benefits" coined by the New York Times is quite appropriate.  And the million dollar question that most Americans want answered is - Do these foods really improve our health or is it just a lot of hyped nonsense?  Maybe the truth is that it is somewhere in between.

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    Scientists and health experts have always maintained that as soon as you take a nutrient that is found naturally in food and you synthesize it in supplement form, you change the nature of the nutrient and its impact, often times making it second best.  That's because there are other compounds in the food that may interact with the nutrient and affect how your body absorbs it or how it affects your body at the cellular level.  Clearly when it comes to certain compounds, like calcium, our ability to "get enough daily" may make it essential to use fortification of foods as a secondary delivery method.  Same may hold true for omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and even whole grain fiber.  But most dieticians, nutritionists and health professionals do not want you to minimize the benefits of getting vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fatty fish, eggs, nuts, beans and legumes, by opting to get nutrients from fortified, processed foods.  It is reasonable to monitor your calcium and vitamin D and then meet your daily needs from fortified dairy or soy products and supplements.  But get soluble and insoluble fiber from fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  Get resveratrol from red grapes.  Eat oily fish and use flaxseed to meet daily goals of omega-3 fatty acids.  Only after you eat fruits, vegetables, whole grain carbohydrates, lean proteins (and meatless proteins), healthy fats, should you turn to fortified dairy servings and other foods for nutrients.


    And buyers need to beware when it comes to health claims.  The FTC is fining companies who exaggerate processed food benefits or labeling that suggests unsubstantiated health benefits.  Yes, fiber can help to reduce the risk of diabetes and help with blood sugar management and help with digestion.  But certain "fibers" that can be added to foods do not offer that same benefit.  Manufacturers make the claim because they feel if a food ingredient is classified as "fiber" they should be allowed to make the claim.  But inulin, one common fiber ingredient added to foods, does not offer the health benefits of other natural fibers.  So remember that just like the concept friends with benefits has pros and cons, foods with benefits may not be the best choice when it comes to your health.  If in doubt, ask a nutritionist or dietician to assess any processed and fortified food product you are tempted to buy for health benefits.


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    Are you attracted to foods with benefits?  Do you eat a lot of fortified foods?  What do you think?

Published On: September 06, 2011