Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Functional Food For Thought

You may have heard the term functional foods used loosely before to describe foods that either naturally or artificially contain nutrients that offer some type of health benefit to the consumer. Magazine articles, internet websites, and news reports tout the benefits of eating these foods, which they claim can do everything from reduce cholesterol to prevent conditions like heart disease or cancer. Even on a simple trip to the grocery store, you can find yourself bombarded with health claims on food packages, such as those on cereal boxes, nut butters and yogurts, proclaiming why their food is best for your health. The functional food craze has become so popular that the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) wanted to investigate… They gathered data from a multitude of industry resources following trends of functional foods in America, and published their findings in “The top 10 functional food trends for 2014”. You may be thinking, “wait slow down… food that has a function? What does that even mean”? Let me backtrack...

First of all, it is important to point out that ALL foods have a physiological “function”. Put simply, proteins are important for muscle repair, fats and carbohydrates for energy, and vitamins and minerals for cell function.

In an effort to distinguish foods that have a potentially positive effect on health, beyond basic nutrition, from foods that do not offer this health benefit, Japan created a food class termed functional food in the 1980s. Here in the U.S., we do not have an official class for, nor have we adopted a legal definition for these foods. Nevertheless, functional foods still have a major presence in America, likely because people are becoming more aware of the impact that food has on their health.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines functional foods as “a food that provides additional health benefits that may reduce disease risk and/or promote good health”. 

Seems broad, right? That’s because it is. According to this definition, oatmeal is a functional food because it has soluble fiber which can help lower cholesterol, and calcium-fortified orange juice is a functional food because it contains calcium which promotes bone health. 

While all foods contain nutrients that have a function in our bodies, functional foods are ones that have an additional benefit to our health. Typically, the ideal way for people to get their nutrients is through foods that naturally contain health-promoting ingredients… these foods are called “conventional” functional foods, and include foods  such as whole grains, fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts.

So now that we’ve covered the basics on what functional foods are, let’s dive into what’s trending in America. According to the IFT Insights article, the Top 10 Functional Foods Trends for 2014 include the following:

  1. Specialty Nutritionals: Consumers are seeking more nutrients, vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals including more fish/oil/omega-3s. 
  2. Get Real: Consumers are looking for foods that are simple, real, natural, and free of artificial ingredients.
  3. Hispanic Health:  Hispanics are the #1 users of energy drinks, sports beverages and 100% juice. Hispanics are 2x more likely than the general population to spend whatever it takes to look younger and are often the first to try a new health food, nutritional product or diet.
  4. The Protein Evolution:  Consumers are seeking more protein to maintain healthy bones, strengthen immune systems, and build muscle strength while maintaining energy throughout the day.
  5. Kid-Specific: Moms are looking for a wider range of healthy, convenient, kid-friendly foods and drinks with nutrient and calorie levels specific to kids.
  6. Pharma Foods: The majority believe functional foods can help prevent or delay the onset of heart disease, hypertension, osteoporosis and Type 2 Diabetes
  7. Alternatives: Many are seeking alternatives such as meatless meals for dinner on occasion; eggs are the most popular alternative followed by beans/lentils/legumes. Also, dairy-free milks including soy, rice and almond milk are increasing in popularity.
  8. Performance Nutrition: Sports nutrition category targets not only athletes and body builders but recreational sports participants, casual athletes and gym exercisers. 
  9. Weighing In: Consumers are avoiding the deprivation-style weight loss campaigns and instead simply eat healthier while adding specific real food components and nutrients to their diet. 
  10. Gen Zen: Today’s millennials between the ages of 14 and 33 view their food choices as healthier, more expensive, more natural and organic, less processed, better tasting and fresh. Millennials are also the most likely to believe that functional foods can be used in place of some medicines to relieve tiredness, lack of energy, retain mental sharpness with aging, reduce stress, and improve eye health. 

Can you relate to any of these functional food trends? My guess is that many of us are already buying into the functional food trends without even realizing! Health is important, and so is the food we eat. Choosing functional foods, especially the “conventional” functional foods that naturally contain health-promoting nutrients, is a great way to maximize your nutrition and live a healthy life. 

~Ashley Hamm


1. Denny, S. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. What are functional foods? April 2013. Accessed May 29, 2014. Available at http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6442472528.

2. Sloan, E. Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) website. The Top 10 Functional Foods Trends. Food Technology. 2014:64(4). Accessed April 29, 2014. Available at http://www.ift.org/food-technology/past-issues/2014/april/features/toptentrends.aspx?page=viewall 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

What Are the Facts on the New Nutrition Facts Label?

Picture a common scenario: standing in the grocery store, trying to decide between two food products—what do you do? If you’re like most consumers, you probably turn the package over to examine the Nutrition Facts label and base your decision on calorie or fat content (or, if you’re like me, you discard both options and head for the dessert aisle instead).  The Nutrition Facts label, found on most food packages in the US, serves as a guide to help consumers make informed food choices and practice healthy dietary habits. However, it can be incredibly hard to understand! If you’ve ever argued with yourself in the middle of the store trying to decode the label (and scared a Publix employee in the process), you’ll be happy to know that it is about to get a major facelift.

Why the sudden fuss over this image that we’ve come to accept as an unavoidable component of food packaging? For starters, the current label, introduced more than 20 years ago, does not reflect the current food environment of the average consumer.  In other words, the serving sizes shown on the current labels are no longer relevant to the dietary habits of today’s society. The proposed changes take people's actual eating behavior into account and the new label aims to provide a greater understanding of nutrition science with a refreshed design that is easier to read.

What Exactly are the Changes?

 Greater Understanding of Nutrition Science 
  •  The new labels require information about “added sugars,” which can decrease the intake of nutrient-rich foods while increasing calorie intake.
  •  Updated daily values for nutrients like sodium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D will be included on the label to help consumers understand the nutrient information in the context of a total daily diet.
  •  Manufacturers will be required to state the amount of potassium and vitamin D on the label, because they are considered “nutrients of public health significance.”
  •  The term “calories from fat” will be removed, because research shows the type of fat consumed is more important than the amount.

      Updated Serving Size Requirements and New Labeling Requirements for Certain Package Sizes
  •  Serving sizes will reflect how consumers eat and drink today. The label information must be based on what people actually eat.
  •  Packaged food and drinks that are typically eaten in one sitting, such as a 20-oz soda, must be labeled as a single serving with calorie and nutrient information to reflect the entire package.
  •  For certain packages that are larger and could be consumed in one sitting or multiple sittings, manufacturers must provide “dual column” labels to indicate both “per serving” and “per package” calories and nutrient information—for example, a 24-oz soda or a pint of ice cream.

      Refreshed Design
  •  Calories and serving sizes will be more prominent in order to emphasize parts of the label that are more important for public health.
  •  The Percent Daily Value will be on the left of the label so that it is read first.
  •  The label footnote will be changed to more clearly explain the meaning of the Percent Daily Value. 

The Next Step

Will the new Nutrition Facts label really be that much more helpful than the current one? Results from a recent Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research (GICR) study suggest so. In an attempt to investigate how helpful the current and the proposed new labels are to consumers, the researchers presented 830 participants with various items and asked them how healthy they perceived each to be. The items—a 20 oz bottle of soda, a frozen pizza, and an 8-oz bag of chips—were accompanied by either the current Nutrition Facts label, the proposed label, or an alternate proposed label. Consumers were randomly assigned to view one type of label. In addition, the label information was presented for either 10 seconds (to mimic an in-store viewing) or for an unlimited amount of time. The results suggest that the proposed labels were more helpful than the current label when given a brief, 10-second timeframe. This rapid encounter reflects the amount of time that a consumer would realistically spend looking at labels while shopping—hence, the proposed labels could make eating healthier an easier task for shoppers.

Of course, as with any change in consumer products, new information warrants a need for education on the label changes. What do you think of the proposed label changes? Will it be easier for consumers to make healthy choices at the grocery store? Or, has the FDA uncovered a whole new set of problems? No matter what your feelings are on the issue, you won’t see these changes until at least August 1st, 2014.

~Jenna Norris

  • MacMunn A, O’Malley R. As Advocates for Improvements on Food Labels, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Supports FDA's Proposed Label Changes, Calls for Nutrition Education for Consumers. AND web site. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/Media/content.aspx?id=6442480118#.U4SLjJRdVSa. Published February 27, 2014. Accessed May 23, 2014.
  • Proposed Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label. FDA web site. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm. Published May 2014. Accessed May 23, 2014.
  • Hennessy M. Proposed Nutrition Labels More Effective Than Current Labels: Survey. Food Navigator web site. Available at: http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/R-D/Proposed-nutrition-labels-more-effective-than-current-labels-survey. Published May 22, 2014. Accessed May 23, 2014.