Snake oil in your snacks

You know something is terribly wrong when the makers of Froot Loops (a breakfast cereal that’s almost 50% sugar by weight) are bragging about health benefits of the product’s added fibre. Why not just throw a couple of Tim Horton’s gooey maple dips at the kids every morning?

And it gets worse. Foods masquerading as drugs are the hot spot in the packaged-food business. The world’s biggest food companies are stuffing ostensibly beneficial bacteria, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins and other additives into packaged foods. According to a recent piece in Forbes magazine, these companies are even funding clinical research in order to justify health claims – often deliberately vague – that blur the line between nutrition and medicine.

These foods promise to boost immunity, protect your heart and digestive system or help you sleep. In some cases, manufacturers aren’t adding new ingredients but merely repackaging old foods with bold new health claims.

More than 2,000 so-called functional food brands generated $160 billion in global sales last year. Sales are growing at a 7% annual clip. Functional food brands include:

  • yogurt with high doses of “probiotic” bacteria
  • breads and other foods with added omega-3 fatty acids
  • fortified cereals and snack bars
  • “energy” (i.e., stimulant-containing) drinks with additives like the amino acid taurine or the herb guarana

But most of the claims are completely unsubstantiated, says Dr. Steven Nissen, head of cardiology at the world-famous Cleveland Clinic. He adds:

“Medical attention does not come from a Cheerios box.”

According to Forbes, designer foods can be a way for clever marketers to lure people away from real health foods – fresh fruits and vegetables. As Michael Pollan, author of the must-read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, writes:

“It plays on our psychology. We want to consume sugar. We want to consume fat. We want to consume salt. These products give us an excuse to binge.”

Yogurt giant Dannon (and its European parent company, Group Danone) learned the hard way that they can’t just make up stuff about their Activia yogurt improving our digestion any better than any other (cheaper) brands. A Los Angeles federal court heard that even Dannon’s own studies fail to prove that Activia has health benefits superior to any other brands of yogurt, in spite of the company’s claim that these benefits had been proven “clinically” and “scientifically”. See Dannon Slammed With $35 Million False Advertising Settlement Over Activia Probiotic Yogurt

Read the rest of this Forbes article.

4 thoughts on “Snake oil in your snacks

  1. If you have not denounced food manufacturers for taking nutrients out of foods, if you have not denounced food manufacturers for the excipients they put into foods, then your motives are suspect if you complain about nutrients being put into foods.

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  2. How gullible are we anyway? As you wrote elsewhere on this site, marketers are smart and we have to learn how to outsmart them. Don’t let them lead us around like mindless stupid sheep just by adding the words “vitamin” or “healthy” or “organic” or any other buzzword to what we buy. Thanks for continuing to hammer home this message to remind all of us – – – we need to become more savvy consumers.

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  4. The amazing thing is that consumers are apparently falling for and buying these “functional food” brands. It must be true: there’s a sucker born every minute… I have bookmarked this and also subscribed to your RSS feeds. Thanks for an amazing site.

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