START in Aisle 2, third shelf from the bottom: here is grape juice for your heart. Over to Aisle 4: there are frozen carrots for your eyes.
Push a cart through the D’Agostino store in Midtown Manhattan, or any supermarket anywhere in America, and you just might start believing in miracles — or at least in miracle foods.
In aisle after aisle, wonders beckon. Foods and drinks to help your heart, lower your cholesterol, trim your tummy, coddle your colon. Toss them into your cart and you might feel better. Heck, you might even live longer.
Or not. Because this, shoppers, is the question: Are all these products really healthy, or are some of them just hyped?
The answer to that question matters to millions of Americans who are wagering their money and their waistlines on hot new products in the grocery aisles called “functional foods.”
Food giants like Dannon, Kellogg and General Mills don’t claim these products actually prevent or cure diseases. Such declarations would run afoul of federal regulations. Nor do they sell them as medical foods, which are intended to be consumed under a doctor’s supervision.
Rather, food companies market functional foods with health-promoting or wellness-maintaining properties. Such claims are perfectly legal, provided that they are backed up by some credible science.
All those heart-healthy red hearts on your box of Quaker Oats cereal or that can of Planters peanuts? That happy-colon yellow arrow on the tub of Activia yogurt? It’s all part of the marketing of functional food.
Over the past decade, despite all those sales pitches for “natural,” “organic” and “whole” foods, functional food has turned into a big business for Big Food. And more Americans are buying into the functional story. Sales of these foods and beverages totaled $37.3 billion in the United States in 2009, up from $28.2 billion in 2005, according to estimates from the Nutrition Business Journal, a market research firm.
But as sales soar, federal regulators worry that some packaged foods that scream healthy on their labels are in fact no healthier than many ordinary brands. Federal Trade Commission officials have been cracking down on products that, in their view, make dubious or exaggerated claims. Overwhelmed regulators concede that they are struggling to police this booming market, despite recent settlements with makers of brands like Kellogg’s Rice Krispies and Dannon’s Activia, which the authorities say oversold their health benefits.
Consumer advocates and some nutritionists are equally blunt. They say shoppers are being bamboozled by slick marketing. Many people grab products with healthy claims on the front of the package and overlook crucial nutritional information, like calorie counts, in the small print on the back.
Walk through any supermarket, and you’ll see what Ms. Nestle means.