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Battle over functional foods heats up Add to ...

Worried about your declining brain? Drink a glass of juice. Concerned about high cholesterol? Reach for the margarine. Want an easy source of protein that reduces the feeling of hunger? Eat a chocolate-covered granola bar.

Forget fruits and vegetables. A rapidly growing segment of the food industry is aiming to make it easier for consumers to boost their health and reduce the risk of chronic disease by fortifying products with nutrients that promise benefits.

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They're called functional foods, a billion-dollar business that is blurring the line between the pharmacy and the grocery store.

But as the market for functional foods grows, so does frustration in the food industry, which claims Canada's slow regulatory process hampers innovation. At the same time, medical experts and consumer watchdogs question whether the health benefits of functional foods are overstated, or misleading marketing.

One thing seems certain: Grocery shopping is about to get more complicated.

Health Canada defines functional foods as those that go beyond basic nutrition to provide physiological benefits or help reduce the risk of chronic disease. Common examples include bread infused with omega-3 fatty acids, probiotic yogurt and vitamin-enhanced water.

Statistics Canada published an industry survey in 2007 that estimated the revenue from the functional food market in Canada to be upward of $1.8-billion.

"It's fair to say it's booming," said Peter Jones, director of the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals at the University of Manitoba.

While there are numerous functional foods available in Canada, the industry is much less developed than in markets such as the United States.

Derek Nighbor, senior vice-president of public and regulatory affairs at Food and Consumer Products of Canada, the industry association, said Health Canada is too restrictive with the types of health claims that companies can make and that the approval process for new functional foods is long and onerous.

Only six health claims about food products are permitted in Canada, whereas in the U.S. market, companies can make several dozen claims. Health claims permitted in Canada also tend to be general and vague. For instance, products that have added calcium and vitamin D can only carry a label linking those nutrients to a decreased risk of osteoporosis.

Companies can add other nutrients to certain products, but aren't allowed to claim they lower the risk of disease. Margarine, yogurt or bread fortified with omega-3 fatty acids can only say those fats are important to good health.

It's a different story in the United States.

Minute Maid sells several types of juices in the U.S. with splashy labels that say, "Help nourish your brain" or "Reduce cholesterol." Until recently, it sold a juice fortified with glucosamine, which it says supports healthy joints. Green Giant has a line of frozen vegetables called "health blends" that also tout health benefits. The "immunity blend" product label says it's rich in antioxidants, which supports immune health.

Dr. Jones said functional foods have the potential to have a real impact on health.

But others question the evidence used to make those health claims. Critics point out that many fortified products, such as vitamin water, yogurt, juice and granola bars, often contain high amounts of sugar.

There have also been a growing number of U.S. cases where companies have made exaggerated or inaccurate health claims.

At the height of last year's H1N1 pandemic, Kellogg sold boxes of Rice Krispies and Cocoa Krispies in the U.S. with labels claiming the cereal could "support your child's immunity" because it contains antioxidants and nutrients. The company eventually bowed to pressure to remove the claims.

In August, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to the makers of Canada Dry Sparkling Green Tea Ginger Ale for saying it has antioxidants from green tea and ginger ale. The agency said the nutrients don't have recognized antioxidant activity and it's inappropriate to fortify carbonated beverages or snack foods.

Last fall, Dannon Co. said it would reimburse customers up to $100 (U.S.) for purchases of Activia yogurt and DanActive dairy drink as part of a U.S. lawsuit settlement over allegations the company exaggerated health benefits.

"We shouldn't be letting people sell products at the expense of gullible consumers," said Yoni Freedhoff, the medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa and an outspoken advocate on nutritional issues.

He's worried Health Canada will open the door to allow food companies more flexibility in the way they fortify products and market health claims.

He may be right. Earlier this year, Health Canada approved a new health claim that allows companies to claim that foods fortified with plant sterols could help lower cholesterol, the first new claim approved in years. It is also looking at creating a new policy that would allow manufacturers of most packaged foods to fortify them with a variety of nutrients. Critics fear it will lead to fortification of junk food.

Dr. Freedhoff said Canada should be slowing down the functional food market, in large part because companies seldom put enough nutrients in a product to make any difference to a person's health. He also pointed to U.S. examples of exaggerated claims.

But Mr. Nighbor said Canada has a strong regulatory framework and that greater access to functional foods will help consumers take control of their nutrition.

"It's allowing consumers to be empowered to make the choices they want to make," he said. "If you have a chocolate bar once or twice a year and you're getting a little vitamin C from that, what's the big deal?"

Follow on Twitter: @carlyweeks

 

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