One month, Bran Flakes was just an ordinary breakfast cereal. The next month, it could 'refresh and re-energise your MIND and BODY within just 2 weeks'.
The only difference from one month to the next was the addition of 'scientific information' quoted from a study. Indeed, bran's image has been hugely enhanced by the suggestion of a relationship between dietary fibre and bowel cancer and heart health.
Bran Flakes is one of a fast-growing number of so-called functional foods. These are usually defined as any modified food or food ingredient that provides a health benefit beyond the nutrients it contains (J Am Dietetic Assoc, 1995; 95: 493-6).
In 1980, the Japanese invented the term 'functional food' and, after Kelloggs proved how successfully you could exploit food with a medicinal claim, manufacturers the world over have been scouring around for yet more 'get-well' foods. This new type of food couldn't have come at a better time. It has bolstered a flagging industry and its lacklustre stockmarket performance with a lucrative new stream of revenue.
Nowadays, European dairy-based products, such as Bio Activia (Danone), all claim to contain probiotics, and there are calcium-fortified fruit juices and cholesterol-lowering margarines, such as Flora pro-activ and Benecol (Raisio). In 1994, after a scientific study seemed to confirm that cranberry juice alleviates urinary cystitis (JAMA, 1994; 271: 751-4), Ocean Spray began quoting the study to promote their cranberry juice. Sales immediately shot up by over 150 per cent.
Benecol was the first-ever margarine to make a clinically proven cholesterol-lowering health claim. In 1995, a study confirmed that Benecol, which contains plant stanol esters, lowered LDL (bad) cholesterol by 14 per cent in Finnish men with high blood cholesterol (N Engl J Med, 1995; 333: 1308-12). For the company behind the product, Finland's Raisio Group, the launch of this margarine caused a stockmarket frenzy. As a result of Benecol's runaway success, Unilever launched its own cholesterol-lowering margarine, Flora pro-activ.
Almost no food category is beyond the reach of the innovators. Professor Heikki Karppanen, of the University of Helsinki, the inventor of Pan Salt, the successful table salt alternative, has recently come up with an internationally patented food composition called Multi-Bene. This product is made up of natural plant sterols with added calcium, magnesium and potassium. Its patent application lists no fewer than 52 apparently substantiated health claims.
Patients suffering from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, poor glucose metabolism and obesity are said to have what has been dubbed 'metabolic syndrome' (or 'syndrome X' in the US). Multi-Bene claims to be clinically proven to treat metabolic syndrome successfully, and the plan is to incorporate Multi-Bene into many common foods, from bread to hamburgers and pizzas, to minimise the harmful effects of an overweight person's typical diet.
The Scandinavian confectionery colossus Fazer and the specialist meat conglomerate Pouttu, as well as Valio and Ingman Foods, the giant which controls 70 per cent of the Finnish dairy market, have all signed deals to develop products using Multi-Bene (Heasman M, Mellentin J, The Functional Foods Revolution, London: Earthscan Publications, 2001: 195-6). Once Multi-Bene has passed through the EU's novel foods process, it won't be long before these products have reached all of Europe.
In Japan, there are now 40 different functional food components - called FOSHU, Foods for Specific Health Uses - introduced into every conceivable kind of food, from chocolate and vinegar to hamburger patties, biscuits cooking oil and even chewing gum (J Japan Health Food Nutr Food Assoc, 2000, quoted op cit, pp 142-3).
Functional foods raise a host of questions. Are they for the healthy or the sick? When medicinal claims are made on food labels, shouldn't they follow the regulatory approval process, and shouldn't their consumption be monitored by a qualified professional?
If these 'clinically proven' claims are true for one particular food item, are they still true when lumped together with other items plus the buffering components of the host food?
There are many gray areas regarding the biomarkers and endpoints in the claims made for functional foods. For example, just how long do I have to eat XYZ Bran to get the supposed cardiovascular benefits or the reduction in cancer risk? Forever? And if I stop, are the benefits permanent or transient?
Why would the scientific evidence remain valid if only a tiny amount of the added substance is present in the functional food, which is otherwise still loaded with sodium, fat and sugars to make it tasty to the largest number of consumers?
It hardly seems a coincidence that vitamins, minerals, herbals, amino acids and essential fatty acids are being severely curtailed by EU parliamentary legislation at exactly the time when our foods are being allowed to be spiked with these substances.
The indiscriminate medicalisation of food amounts to a commercially driven 'spin' on the naturopathic concept of good health through food. Adulterating drinks and foods with substances purportedly proved by science to be healthful is a marketing tactic squarely aimed at our basic fears and preconceptions concerning our fragile health. Why should consumers replace natural fruit and vegetables that contain a wide variety of nutrients with manufactured functional foods that contain only one or a few added substances?
Another worrying aspect of functional foods is how they might be used as an instrument for social and population control and management - say, by helping unruly and underperforming pupils in the classroom.
There is no health substitute for home-cooked diets made of unadulterated ingredients. A functional food is a fake, processed food, pure and simple, which can never replace the real thing.
Harald Gaier is a registered homoeopath, naturopath and osteopath.