‘Functional Foods’ & ‘Health’ Claims by the Food & Beverage Industry: A Closer Look

The typical North American Diet is rife with processed foods that are driving the health of the population into the ground and the cost of healthcare up. Last week, our local newspaper in Central Vancouver Island ran an article titled ‘Health Care Premiums Increasing’. Health care premiums are expected to rise in British Columbia due to the overall increased demand on the system. The president of the Canadian Medical Association, Dr. Granger Avery, is asking for action on a ‘renewal’ of the health care system to change from an archaic ‘acute care’ hospital model to a ‘chronic care’ model. Demands are shifting toward the management of chronic conditions, addiction, and mental health.

Statistics cited by the World Health Organization, Public Health Agency of Canada and the Center for Disease Control & Prevention all paint the same picture of escalating chronic health conditions across the population.

However, their calls to action are often stymied by the influence of the Food & Beverage Industry and their lobbying efforts. And now here come ‘health claims’ on the very same food that has taken us down the wrong path. Not that health claims are new, but the new fervor with which the food & beverage industry is embracing them (once again) makes me pause and reflect.

Are they truly making efforts to improve the health of the population? Are ‘health claims’ made by the food & industry true?

According to naturally savvy.com, big food companies are changing for the better due to consumers’ efforts. They are cutting solid fats, sugars, sodium, and artificial colors from their products. And, of course, they are pledging to either label or cut out GMO ingredients altogether.

At last count, more than 70 bills have been introduced in 30 states (in the USA) to require genetically engineered (GE) food labeling and/or to ban GE foods outright. Kellog’s, Nestle, Mars and General Mills are jumping on the wagon, just to name a few.

The exclusion of GMOs, removal of artificial colors and flavors, as well as the removal of BPA is a start to making these products somewhat pass-able as “food”. There is long way to go for improvement.

Free stock photo of food, healthy, meal, cereals

What about the ‘health’ claims made by these companies? Cleaning up nutrition labels is the new trend in the processed food and beverage sector (more about this new trend soon).

Next time you go shopping, take note of the burlap sack labels on cereal boxes claiming the product to be “Simply Good! No Artificial Flavours or Colours”.

The processed food industry is definitely aware of this “wave” of consumer demand for more ‘functional’ (health-enhancing) foods and is working closely with marketing teams to “ride this wave” as smoothly as possible.

Read more about effective marketing of processed foods at Food Processing E-zine. This online magazine for food processors should be mandatory reading for the North American consumer.

In her blog, Food Politics, Marion Nestle often writes about food industry trends and keeps them honest. She breaks down a recent study of packaged foods with and without health claims and whether those ‘health’ claims are true.

A ‘health claim’ can be defined as the following:

“…a health claim for food is considered to be any representation in labeling and advertising that states, suggests, or implies that a relation exists between the consumption of foods or food constituents and health.” (1)

This study involved a cross-sectional survey of prepackaged foods sold in Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Slovenia and the UK in 2013. A total of 2034 foods were randomly sampled from three food store types (supermarket, a neighbourhood store and a discounter).

Nutritional information was taken from nutrient declarations present on food labels (that either did or did not make health claims) and assessed through a comparison of mean levels, regression analyses and the application of a nutrient profile model currently used to regulate health claims in Australia and New Zealand.

Their results are summed up succinctly by Marion Nestle in her post Food Products with Health Claims: only marginally better (no surprise).

It begs the question: Why buy food that requires ‘health claims’ at all?  Grow your own and buy organic close to home as much as possible.

This 2 minute video by Woody Harrelson sums up what we need to do as consumers to change the behavior of the food industry. Well said.


Further Reading on Health Claims:


(1) Health Canada: Health Claims Assessment

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