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Chocolate That Cures Acne, Potato Chips That Lower Cholesterol -- Here Come the Nutraceuticals to a Store Near You

The food industry sees huge dollar signs in erasing the border between medicine and meals.
 
 
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Cinnamon is no longer just the spunky spice on cinnamon toast. Turmeric is no longer just the bitter yellow dust that colors curry.

These days, both are hailed as superpowered disease-fighting "nutraceuticals" — part nutrient, part pharmaceutical. Along with many other once-humble substances (think pomegranates, fish oil and flax seeds), they're key ingredients in "functional foods," which comprise a booming $30-billion-a-year industry bent on erasing the border between medicine and meals.

When is candy not candy? When are potato chips not potato chips? When are crisp salty discs and dark-chocolate balls not mere hedonistic treats? When they're functional foods, in this case Corazonas chips and foil-wrapped Frutels — bought in hopes of lowering cholesterol and curing acne.

For fear of FDA/FTC backlash, functional-food companies must exercise great care in promoting such near-miracles. But consumers are fluent in the lexicon by which thousands of new products are marketed — and old products reframed — as not just tasty but "healthy" and "scientifically proven," "according to studies," "to reduce the risk" of very specific, sometimes very deadly diseases.

Energy bars and energy drinks are just the tip of this antioxidant-enhanced, vitamin-enriched, high-fiber iceberg. In a fear-driven, science-obsessed society that's queasy about health care costs, it's just what the doctor didn't order. ("Based on cutting-edge science, Frutels contains vitamins and minerals shown to strengthen the body ... and help clear skin of blemishes," reads the company's Web site.) Brownies that prevent macular degeneration? Soda pop that fights cancer? Bring 'em on — and thank you, folic acid and epigallocatechin gallate!

As defined by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, nutraceuticals include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, other botanicals, and that amorphous category known as dietary supplements. Some truly inspiring products have emerged. Megabrands are riding this bandwagon to the bank as well. Several pages of Welch's Web site — headlined "The Science" — praise the power of polyphenol antioxidants in grape juice. General Mills boasts that the cereals in its "Big G" line — including Lucky Charms, Chocolate Cheerios and Trix — "are made with whole grains, which deliver vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients. That’s important, because studies suggest that whole grains may help reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and certain types of cancer."

Giving the acronym FWB a whole new meaning — food with benefits — nutraceuticals hark back to preindustrial folk remedies. Given that this ancient science of roots and fruits spawned Chinese herbal medicine, ayurvedic medicine and Western pharmacology, embracing ancestral wisdom in the form of antiviral pizza and anticancer jam can't hurt.

Whether it can actually help remains to be seen, warns physician Stephen DeFelice, who coined the word "nutraceutical" in the 1970s and now heads the New Jersey-based Foundation for Innovation in Medicine. A former NIH fellow in endocrinology, diabetes and metabolic disease and chief of clinical pharmacology at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, DeFelice has spent the last 30 years advocating for better research into nutraceuticals, to little avail. The functional-foods industry, he sighs, "is all marketing, marketing, marketing without the clinical research to back it up."

Most of those "scientific studies" cited on labels "have been stupidly designed," he says, and entail only test tubes and laboratory animals but not human beings.

"Very few nutraceuticals have been proven to work on people. The others haven't been disproven, but they haven't been proven. Unless something's been tested through clinical studies on real people, how can you know? For instance, I don't know of any studies proving conclusively that antioxidants have beneficial effects on humans. That doesn't mean they don't, but very few real studies have been done. Whenever a company claims that its product includes antioxidants, bing! Automatically it's considered good. But there are good antioxidants and bad antioxidants, and a lot depends on when you take them."

"People want a quick fix, a magic bullet, without having to overhaul their diet," says nutritional therapist Sally Beare, author of 50 Secrets of the World's Longest-Living People (Avalon, 2005). "Most of us have busy lives and don’t have the time or inclination to grow and make our own foods, or stop eating cake and fries, so the idea of nutrients coming from a bottle or in a packet is appealing."

So is the prospect of self-medicating with utterly delicious snacks. And so is the notion that manufacturers care about our health.

Some actually do. California-based Straus Family Creamery, committed to sustainability since the 1960s and certified organic in 1993, introduced cinnamon yogurt to its product line last month.

"We wanted something that tasted good, was unique, and had health benefits," says the SFC's owner Albert Straus, who was impressed by cinnamon's role in ayurvedic medicine — where it is hailed for improving circulation and vitality — and spent months sampling organic cinnamon from around the world before settling on a grower in Vietnam.

"Reap the benefits of cinnamon, known for its heart-healthy properties," reads SFC's Web site, also noting the antioxidant richness of its other new flavor, blueberry-pomegranate. Both are almost unbelievably creamy, made with the non-GMO milk of hormone- and antibiotic-free cows that consume grass totally devoid of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers.

"Our customers are looking for foods that are healthy for them," Straus says.

Seeing a place on the market for the medicinal brews she grew up drinking in Bali, Morsinah Katimin began manufacturing them two years ago in San Francisco. Sunny and spunky, sold under the motto "5,000 Years of Wellness," Sajen Jamu bottled beverages are made with turmeric, ginger and beets.

"Turmeric is wowing the medical community," reads the company's Web site. "Ginger's healing properties are well-accepted for fighting nausea and stomach uneasiness. Turmeric is being studied for its powerful healing properties and its ability to clean the blood cells, liver and kidneys. Epidemiological studies show diets rich in turmeric could lower the rates of breasts, prostate, lung and colon cancer."

"None of my brothers and sisters or I ever got colds," Katimin says. "I've never been in the hospital and I'm 54 years old." In Bali, these brews are "what they drink when they get tired or get pain or want to feel healthier. My grandmother would just pull things from our garden and make jamu. She had 350 different recipes, all packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatories and fiber. Some of them wake you up. Some of them help you sleep."

Having immigrated to the US in 1979, Katimin was startled in 2007 to find that "suddenly, I saw turmeric everywhere I looked. Dr. Oz was eating it on Oprah. People were talking about it on the radio. It's as if jamu was looking for me, wanting me to introduce it to the world."

Before the nutraceutical boom, mainstream America had spent a century uncoupling food from its healing properties. Twentieth-century eating focused almost entirely on flavor, speed and ease with the occasional quick nod to "vitamins and minerals." We grimaced when our elders fed us boiled tongue or broccoli while gushing, It's good for you. Yet today we spend billions based on those very same claims.

That's partly because "good for you" now comes in fun, eco-friendly packaging and is sweet, smooth, crunchy, creamy, caffeinated, carbonated and entirely gristle-free.

Functional-food companies walk a tricky linguo-legislative tightrope erected by the FDA, whose very purpose is to safeguard the border between food and drugs. Permissible are so-called "structure/function" claims, linking certain components with certain positive conditions: e.g., "Fiber maintains bowel regularity." But these must accompany disclaimers specifying that the products in question have neither been evaluated by the FDA nor are meant to treat, cure, or prevent disease. Less permissible are health claims touting specific effects on specific diseases — e.g., "Vitamin C prevents cancer" — although the Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act of 1997 permits some such claims if they're supported by "an authoritative statement from an appropriate scientific body of the United States government or the National Academy of Science or any of its subdivisions," according to the FDA itself.

"There is no such thing as a magic bullet," Beare warns. "Eating the Standard American Diet — the ‘SAD’ — plus the odd nutraceutical is not going to give anyone good health and long life. That’s probably why the majority of studies into these things are inconclusive.

"Cutting-edge nutrition science is now showing that much of the power of plant chemicals lies in their synergy: For example, an apple contains several thousand phytochemicals which work together and magnify each other’s beneficial power. Isolating single nutrients and selling them in a capsule or adding them to foods is missing the point somewhat."

DeFelice agrees.

"What we do know about nutraceuticals is that they don't work all by themselves as single agents. They work in combination. Nutraceutical #1 does A and nutraceutical #2 promotes A and nutraceutical #3 does something else, which promotes A but inhibits B. That's why the world's best nutraceutical is a meal. Generally speaking, it's better that we have nutraceuticals than if we didn't. While their actual potential isn't yet known because they haven't been tested clinically, they rest on good theory.

"Whether or not they work in the ways people want them to work, nutraceuticals offer a huge, wonderful placebo effect which shouldn't be underestimated. People eat or drink these things when they're depressed or fatigued, and they feel better. This will reduce healthcare costs — and nutraceuticals are relatively safe. If you replaced all the nutraceuticals in your local supermarket with pharmaceuticals, half of America would be dead in six months."

 
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