A recent article in The New York Times raised concern over how the food industry markets a category called "functional foods." Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and health at New York University, is quoted saying, "Functional foods, they are not about health. They are about marketing."
I have a different take on the subject. The term "functional food" has been in the professional lexicon for a long time - I'd say at least a decade. Like all terms coined to describe a new category, it means something different to everyone. My best assessment: "Functional food" is a (somewhat vague) label used to categorize products to which health-promoting nutrients or ingredients have been added. (And by the way, I think the words "whole," "natural" and even "organic" are vague in meaning, too, even though regulators have tried to define them.)
But back to the topic at hand: When it comes down to it, aren't all foods functional? How about the vitamin C in orange juice versus the vitamin C added to oj? Does enrichment with a vitamin already present in a food suddenly make that food functional? It's becoming too complex to place food in such categories. Maybe it's time to stop.
Yes, food companies do promote the various health benefits of their products. Within responsible parameters, so what? They invest in scientific research to develop these products. If we want to see greater investment in nutrient science, we need to evaluate and work with the data we're given - or there won't be any investment.
Where nutrition professionals enter the picture - and I am referring to professionals in all branches of dietetics - is in helping people understand their choices and decide what foods meet their needs. For example, is calcium low in the diet? If so, choose a food with added calcium. On a special renal diet? Avoid foods with potassium. It comes down to making the best selection for the individual. As advances in science reveal more about added nutrients, interrelationships between nutrients and personalized nutrition plans, it's our job to help consumers understand what is optimal for them.
So let's stop worrying about the food industry and what it's doing to market functional foods. Let's focus on helping consumers understand the value of reading the label and picking the foods that are right for them.