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Walk into a grocery and you may feel as though you've stepped into a pharmacy.
From cholesterol-reducing spreads to memory-improving snack chips, supermarket shelves and produce bins are filled with products boasting a bevy of health benefits.
These medicinal munchies, commonly referred to as ``functional foods,'' or foods with the potential to provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition, are a growing trend.
If people are not going to consume certain foods, I would rather they get them in an alternative way than not at all,'' says Joyce Bagyi, a dietitian at the Albany Medical Center Hospital.It's not enough to just say, `drink milk.' It's not going to work for everybody.''
The nearly two-thirds of Americans who regularly consume at least one food for its functional health benefits would agree, according to the International Food Information Council (IFC).
Foods considered functional can be anything from unmodified whole fruits and vegetables to artificially enhanced products, such as enriched orange juice or folic-acid-fortified cereal, according to the IFC. Chocolate chews with added calcium, soups containing St. John's Wort and cholesterol-lowering butter are a few more examples.
Unlike cereals, breads, pastas and flour fortified to replenish nutrients lost through processing, functional foods go further. These foods aren't just compensating for a deficiency of nutrients; they are designed to treat and prevent diseases, like heart disease and osteoporosis.
It's a step in the right direction, says Dr. Robert Stram, director of emergency services at Albany Memorial Hospital and co-founder of the Center for Integrated Health and Healing.
``The community and consumer is demanding more nutritionally based foods and the companies are responding,'' he says.
Snacking on foods with medicinal benefits might just be a trend, Stram says, but people are taking advantage of it and that's a good thing.
The concept of foods as medicine is nothing new. Nearly 80 years ago, iodine was added to salt to help prevent goiters.
Consumers are continuing to recognize the role food plays in overall health, says Stephanie Childs, spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, an industry trade group.
It's a trend, but a constantly evolving one,'' she says.As the science of food evolves, and people's interests evolve, you're seeing more products.''
Functional products appeal most to women and baby boomers, says Maria Michael, marketing manager for Fortitech, a manufacturer of premixed nutrients used in the fortification of foods in Schenectady, N.Y.
``People are looking to address condition-specific issues, and they are looking for convenience,'' she says. The fortification industry had nearly $20 billion in sales in 2002 and is projected to reach nearly $40 billion by 2007, says Michael.
But before you go stocking your cart with healthful goodies, keep in mind that not all functional foods are the same, says Bagyi.
Because functional foods aren't defined by law, manufacturers don't have to adhere to any formal regulations in the United States. The nutritional information on food packages comes directly from the company and can be exaggerated.
Health claims made by manufacturers must be preapproved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Companies can make claims about how their products affect the structure and function of the body, but they need the FDA's permission before making claims about a food's ability to treat and cure diseases. For instance, a label may say a food helps promote strong bones, but it can't claim to protect against osteoporosis unless it has gone through FDA review.
While Omega-3 fatty-acid-fortified and enriched cereals have greater nutritional value than the regular products, there are plenty of enriched chips and candies out there with only a smidgen of nutritional value and, well, lots of sugar or sodium, says Bagyi.
Products fortified with a single substance aren't as good as whole foods that contain the substance naturally, argues Dennis Thayer, co-owner of Shades of Green, a vegetarian restaurant in Albany.
Thayer believes manufacturers ``are basically trying to put back in what they are taking out in processing,'' adding that what is returned may not be the same as what was removed. For instance, the vitamin C added to a candy or fruit drink might not be absorbed as successfully as that found in an orange.
``The less processed the foods are, the better. It's a very simple standard to live by,'' he says.
All processed foods aren't inherently bad, but Thayer relies more on whole grains, legumes, soy products and fresh fruits and vegetables for himself and his customers.
``Food can be a great pleasure, but you really need to understand what role it plays in terms of your health,'' he says.
(The Albany Times Union web site is at http://www.timesunion.com )
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