Focus on Functional Foods and Related Health Claims

By Lisa Katic

In late November 2006, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), asking for uniform symbols and labeling schemes to be used on a food product’s principle display panel to indicate its healthfulness. However, some food companies have developed their own symbols that are used on their company’s products to highlight certain healthful attributes of the product.
Companies take advantage of touting the health benefits of certain ingredients in products that are said to deliver specific health benefits such as whole wheat. This whole area in the nutrition and health arena is or has been referred to as “functional foods.” The industry does not have a formal definition for functional foods and has loosely defined them as having health benefits beyond basic nutrition.
In a report released in March 2005 titled “Functional Foods: Opportunities and Challenges,” the Institute of Food Technologists further defined these foods as having substances that provide essential nutrients often beyond quantities necessary for normal maintenance, growth, development and/or other biologically active components that impart health benefits or desirable physiological effects. Examples of functional foods cited in the report include fortified, enriched or enhanced foods and dietary supplements.
Currently, the FDA has not determined an actual regulatory definition for functional foods and has considered them to fall under the existing regulatory framework as conventional foods. The FDA has stated for some time that there is no need to create a separate set of regulations for functional foods as long as the foods are marketed in a truthful and non-misleading manner and are safe. However, the FDA held a public meeting in December 2006 to begin a dialog with the industry, consumers and other stakeholders regarding the regulation of functional foods and to determine if further action is required on label claims and symbols being used to highlight the health benefits of some foods.
The food industry, including the Snack Food Association, has opposed government regulation on functional foods, stating that current statutory and regulatory provisions require that ingredients used in developing any food, including those that bear health claims, must meet the regulations already in existence for food additives or ingredients that are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). This would include any new ingredients being used in foods for functional benefits.
Consumer groups contend that companies misuse health claims on food labels without strong enough evidence that they actually deliver on their stated claims. These groups want stricter regulation on all symbols, claims and health statements made on labels.
It is not clear where the FDA is headed with respect to regulatory action on functional foods and health claims, as the agency has given no indication of next steps they will take following the recent meeting on this topic. In the meantime, it is important that food companies ensure that all claims made on food products are substantiated by sound science and do not exaggerate the intended result. The SFA will be watching this closely in the months ahead.
Editor’s Note: Lisa Katic, a nutritionist, is the Snack Food Association’s health public policy consultant.