Remember the Space Food Sticks – the space age energy food from the future? Well the newest future food catch phrase is “Functional Foods.” These are foods that are boosted with other nutrients and have reached $19 billion in retail sales.
Functional foods range from beverages to desserts, all claiming additional superpowers. They fall into a gray area somewhere between foods like an apple that give you some essential nutrients and a dietary supplement that gives you extra nutrients that your diet may be lacking.
The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for regulating these foods and defines them as “foods and food components that provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition.” This is like taking that apple and making it a “super apple.” That’s not an apple with other fruit qualities and nutrients like pear-apples and grapples (grape apples), but an apple that has been bred with extra plant sterols designed to fight cholesterol, extra antioxidants to fight cancer or perhaps a megadose of calcium to combat osteoporosis.
This may sound science-fictional, but it’s not! Take a look around the shelves of your favorite grocery store and you will already see vitamin-enriched waters, calcium fortified orange juice, Omega 3 nut mixes and fiber fortified breakfast bars.
Looking deeper into the future, it is possible to design foods and diets through regulatory gene expression that could reduce or prevent diseases afflicting people with specific genotypes. Meaning, if you are genetically at risk for certain diseases, foods could be altered to help decrease your risks.
In the future, dietitians could be designing nutrition plans and recommending products based on a combination of genetics and modified foods. The USDA is conducting many research studies at the present time on how genes interact with dietary constituents in fighting diseases.
Also on the horizon are designer foods customized for different age groups. For example, babies need Docosahexaenoic Acie (DHA) for brain development – so customizing infant foods to make them higher in DHA might be beneficial. Curcumin, the yellow component in Curry, may help in brain function in older adults, so we may see senior foods supplemented with curcumin or other powerful antioxidants to prevent dementia or cancer.
As foods take on more medicinal/preventive superpowers, who will be regulating them? There is a huge possibility for consumer fraud and misinformation. As the FDA and food marketers sort out how they are going to regulate these foods, consumers should practice caution and common sense.
Most functional foods come with a price – they are often more expensive and they do contain calories. Fiber One Chewy Bars, for instance, deliver 35% of your daily fiber requirement, thought to promote digestive health and weight management, but each bar also contains 140 calories and 4 grams of fat. The extra 140 calories per day can add up, so consumers will need to adjust their dietary intake subtracting 140 calories from somewhere else in order to avoid weight gain.
Remember the golden rule when it comes to the diet, substitute rather than add! And remember, if a little bit is good, that doesn’t mean a lot is better.