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Let’s file this one under the heading, “If It Sounds Too Good to Be True, It Probably Is.” The Wall St. Journal reports this week on a surge among food processors to create what are called functional foods. Beyond the irony here (aren’t all foods by definition functional?), the story reveals that foods “believed to possess health benefits beyond the basic function of providing nutrients” now total more than $30 billion annually. The research firm Packaged Facts anticipates that this figure will grow by 40% over the next five years. What does this mean? It means an increase in the packaged foods in the grocery which tout the additives included. Think ketchup infused with probiotics; think pasta with calcium; think, if you can, marshmallows with collagen, to—supposedly—give your skin a healthy, collagen-fed glow.

The Function of Food

Let’s file this one under the heading, “If It Sounds Too Good to Be True, It Probably Is.” The Wall St. Journal reports this week on a surge among food processors to create what are called functional foods.

Beyond the irony here (aren’t all foods by definition functional?), the story reveals that foods “believed to possess health benefits beyond the basic function of providing nutrients” now total more than $30 billion annually. The research firm Packaged Facts anticipates that this figure will grow by 40% over the next five years.

What does this mean? It means an increase in the packaged foods in the grocery which tout the additives included. Think ketchup infused with probiotics; think pasta with calcium; think, if you can, marshmallows with collagen, to—supposedly—give your skin a healthy, collagen-fed glow.

You’ll excuse me if I sound skeptical. The Journal story suggests why this might be a good idea, questioning this practice of adding foreign things to our food.

The article reminds us that
one has to be mindful of serving size and strength. Hearts and Minds Peanut Butter with Omega-3 and Olive Oil has 100 mg of the fatty acid per two-tablespoon serving, but a 3.5 oz. portion of salmon, tuna or sardines has 1,500 mg of omega-3. One would have to eat 30 tablespoons of the peanut butter — and 180 grams of fat — to get the same amount of omega-3 present in a single serving of fish.
So, as usual, it’s buyer-get-smart and read about and think about what it is that we’re putting into our bodies.

The conference of Consumer Health in Canada suggests what may seem obvious: processing food “destroys the very nutrients in food rather than increasing them, makes our food more difficult to digest rather than more digestible, and depends upon products that have a negative impact on our health, such as sugar, white flour, processed and hydrogenated oils, additives, synthetic vitamins and an extrusion processing of grains”.

So, adding supplements like extra probiotics to yogurt (some of which already contain probiotics, naturally) actually destroys the probiotics. It sounds like a riddle, but really boils down to the fact that we can’t improve on Mother Nature.

There is a bind here, which I found fascinating. Most health experts these days recommend taking a daily multivitamin, to ensure that we each get the essential nutrients we need (thus, supplementing our diets). 3 out of 4 Americans don’t get the vitamins they need from their diets or vitamins, so many nutritionists suggest buying the fortified foods.

I’ve always heard dismissed clichés like “there is no such thing as a free lunch” and “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” and I find myself falling back on those here.

I am not—nor have I ever—advocated more regulation of the food industry. One need only to look at the ingredients and apply some common sense, maybe even a cliché or two, to decide what is truly good for us.

And, I know this: the folks who grow my spinach and raise the meat around here don’t add things like calcium or collagen or probiotics. They just make good food, which already contains all the nutrition and taste and health that we need. Eat local, and forget all this chemistry0-lab experimentation.

About Dean Williamson

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2 comments

  1. Ah yes, the whistle has finally been blown on these incredible functional foods out there that, through clever marketing, often can’t hope to boast the same nutritional value as whole foods do. What’s wrong with some raw veggies, a homemade olive oil dressing, and some chicken breast anyway? For me, a lot of functional foods feed into our society’s tendency toward the quick, instantly gratifying “fix.” We’re all slowly learning that the world can’t sustain this lifestyle for long! Take a little time to research the simple steps to health.
    ~ Anna M.
    blog.nutri-health.com

  2. Well said (written), Dean. Every day, multitudes of marketing people work diligently to identify slogans and images that will entice us into spending our money on their clients’ products. And it works. Why else would consumers spend billions of dollars a year on cold cereal? Why else would we eat a very expensive bowl of Cheerios (“fortified” with synthetic vitamins) instead of eating the real thing: oatmeal.