May 2011 Archives

Let's Take the 'Functional' Out of Food

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. 

By Susan Finn on May 24, 2011 9:53 PM | No Comments

There's More to Food Safety Than FDA

On January 4, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) into law. This legislation aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus of federal regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it. It gives the Food and Drug Administration unprecedented authority to issue food recalls, conduct more inspections of U.S. food manufacturing facilities and more closely oversee imported foods.


Soon after Congress passed this legislation, FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, MD, issued a statement that bears repeating here:

Passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act has laid the critical foundation for a prevention-based 21st century food safety system. This law makes everyone responsible and accountable at each step in today's global food supply chain. Under this new law, FDA will now have new prevention-focused tools, as well as a clear regulatory framework, to help make substantial improvements in our approach to food safety. Preventing foodborne illness is a core public health principle that is especially critical in an increasingly complex and globalized world. This law helps us take the critical steps toward strengthening the food safety system that is vital to the health and security of the American people.


Some of you might wonder the status of FDA's FSMA-realted activity and what is being done to implement the law. In a letter to stakeholders issued earlier this month, Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods, detailed agency actions and invited  those interested to sign up to receive regular status reports. (Sign up here.)          


Clearly, this effort is a major undertaking for FDA due to the agency's limited staff and the complexity of the food safety issue. The agency is, however, making progress on steps such as devising ways to inform consumers of recalls, especially in areas of greatest concern such as seafood and imports.

I think it's safe to say that all of us in the food and nutrition profession support greater consumer protection and applaud FDA actions. But let's not leave this challenge in FDA's lap. Remember there are things we can do right now to educate consumers about their responsibility in prevention food borne illnesses.


Is it possible to create a risk-free food supply? No. Outbreaks will continue to occur despite FDA's work and FSMA implementation. As dietitians, we have an important role to play in educating consumers on how to prevent foodborne illness in the home and in teaching workers restaurant, school, medical facility and cafeterias kitchens how to handle food safely.


Alarming statistics reported by the Partnership for Food Safety should convince everyone to be careful when handling food: Seventy-six million cases of foodborne illness occur annually in this country; 325,000 people are hospitalized; and 5,000 people die. But guess what: These numbers are not for lack of FDA effort. Most cases of foodborne illness can be prevented. Teach consumers to use a food thermometer to tell if cooked food has reached a proper temperature. Only 15% of Americans do this. More than half of consumers sometimes defrost meat and poultry at room temperature, thus permitting bacterial growth. And only a third of consumers use separate cutting boards for raw and cooked foods, not to mention washing their hands after handling raw food. And the list goes on.  

With support from Conagra Foods, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) offers an education program to assist in outreach efforts and remind consumers and food preparers about safe food-handling practices.  To download information on education strategies, check ADA's website

And remember, while FDA does what it can do to assure a safe food supply, food and nutrition professionals need to do their part as well. FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg is right on target when she says that
everyone is responsible and accountable at each step in today's global food supply chain.  

By Susan Finn on May 19, 2011 3:24 PM | No Comments

Some Thoughts on the Future of Dietetics

Consider this statement: "Nutrient benefits can be difficult to define in pharma-styled disease-reduction models." Amen.


In a special edition on risk communication, briefly examined how communication is challenged when highly inconclusive and contradictory data surround a single ingredient or food. Recently, we have seen this phenomenon with sodium, and controversies remain ongoing over saturated fat, high-fructose corn syrup and calcium - just to name a few.


Unfortunately, though it is at the core of dietetics practice, we have not yet discovered the solution to this communication dilemma. Most consumers do not respond to contradictions and competing theories with, "No problem. That's just the evolutionary nature of scientific discovery." Rather, they want answers - now.


I think one of the biggest challenges that dietetics will face in the future is establishing and maintaining authority amidst the ever-increasing cacophony of scientific findings in nutrition - a cacophony fed by the continuous loop of more research, more media and more interest in health.


Instinct tells me the answer to this communications challenge rests in three principles: scientific context, individuality and professional judgment. It is up to us as nutrition professionals to be the voice of authority - to help not only consumers but also other health professionals, media, and the food industry develop a mindset that demands scientific findings be viewed in context and disallows over-generalizations that undermine productive, individual decision-making.


Stay tuned for more on this subject. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts you would like to share, please comment.

By Susan Finn on May 13, 2011 6:58 AM | No Comments

AGree to Fight Food Insecurity

When finding enough food is the issue, making healthy food choices becomes a moot point. So let's start the conversation at the beginning -  with the food supply.


As the world becomes a smaller place, food insecurity in our own backyard (including middle-class backyards) and on the other side of the world is no longer somebody else's problem. It's is a global threat. Hunger destabilizes governments, weakens societies and undermines human capacity for learning and progress.


I believe that we, as nutrition professionals, must broaden our "systems thinking" to include the very real problem of food insecurity - from lack of food to lack of healthy food options, and everything in between.


In early May, the Ford Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and Walton Family Foundation launched AGree, an initiative designed to address the long-term food and agriculture policies confronting this country and the world.


Solutions to the problems we face in this arena require best-in-class research, comprehensive analysis and dialogue across multiple sectors, including health and nutrition. One of AGree's leaders, Dan Glickman - former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Bill Clinton and a former 18-year Kansas congressman promises that AGree "will elevate the agriculture and food policy conversation . . . [and] will make it clear to leaders and policymakers that, while difficult, solving food and agriculture issues is of utmost importance and can help solve other pressing problems including public health and the need for economic growth."


I think this initiative is one to watch - both for what it can accomplish toward refining and accomplishing its mission and for the strategic collaboration model it creates. Why can't we take three of the world's most threatening, co-dependent problems - hunger, public health and economic stability - and integrate them into a solution? I think we can, and I believe nutrition is the common denominator.

By Susan Finn on May 11, 2011 8:20 PM | No Comments

'Voluntary' Marketing Principles?

Late last week, the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children issued proposed principles for voluntary industry regulation of food marketing directed at children under 17 years old. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (health care reform) and the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act (H.R. 1105) called for establishment of this working group, which is composed of members from the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Trade Commission. The working group was tasked with researching and recommending standards that consider, "calories, portion size, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, added sugars, and the presence of nutrients, fruits, vegetables and whole grains."  


No one can argue with the fact that we have a responsibility to fight this nation's obesity crisis by helping children select healthy foods. In fact, all sectors of society - parents, schools, communities, health care professionals, media and industry - play a role in teaching children how to eat all foods, including those that may be considered special treats. Research and our experience to date demonstrate that this issue is very complex; there is no easy fix.


What concerns me about this latest volley in the battle against obesity is the apparent supposition that food companies are inherently irresponsible and require government policing. An uninformed person reading the interagency group's report would walk away with the impression that the food industry has done nothing to ensure responsible marketing to children, when in truth, food manufacturers have already curtailed advertising of their least healthful products to kids. (See recent Grocery Manufacturers Association survey here.) In addition, in recent years, food companies have changed the recipes of more than 20,000 products to reduce calories, fat, sodium and sugar.


And if this is not enough, keep in mind the food industry's support of initiatives such as the First Lady's Let's Move campaign as well as the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation and its predecessor the American Council on Fitness and Nutrition.


As nutritionist and dietitian who has spent her career in the private sector, I can assure you that food companies are not interested in marketing products to a burgeoning health-conscious segment of the population that doesn't want those products, nor are they interested in harming children! 


Finally, the interagency group's published document concludes with 30 questions that commenters are encouraged to use as guidelines for discussion. One of these questions really got my attention: ". . . If Congress were to enact them [these principles] into law, would such a law raise First Amendment concerns? If so, what are those concerns?"


You have been warned!

By Susan Finn on May 2, 2011 6:15 PM | No Comments

About This Blog

I launched Nutrition Viewpoint to provide nutrition professionals, health care providers, and food and beverage marketers with a forum for examining issues, and trends that affect how we influence food and nutrition policies and how food and nutrition policies influence us. The thoughts and opinions I express in this blog are strictly my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of my clients. Readers are invited to comment on my postings, and I hope that we can engage in a lively conversation. From time to time, Nutrition Viewpoint will also feature guest bloggers. Because of my keen interest in women's nutritional health, I have devoted a special section of this blog to women's issues.

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About Me

Susan Finn

I am a registered dietitian who has spent 30+ years as a nutrition communicator - interpreting the science of nutrition into practical applications for consumers, health professionals, and the food and beverage industry. I am a principal in the nutrition policy and positioning consultancy Finn/Parks & Associates. I currently serve as a senior advisor to Fleishman-Hillard International Communications and am also the CEO and president of the American Council for Fitness & Nutrition. I am a past president of The American Dietetic Association (ADA), the world's largest organization of nutrition experts, and am immediate past chair of the ADA Foundation. While I feel passionately about the importance of nutrition for people of all ages, I am particularly interested in women's nutritional health. Throughout my career, I have concentrated on women's unique nutritional needs and their critical role as gatekeepers for family health.

See Susan Finnís complete bio.

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