More Fortune Through Flummery

Pretty decent article on the rich-country end of the corporate capitalist food fiasco in today’s edition of The New York Times. Titled “Superfood or Monster From the Deep?,” the piece reports on the emerging corporate rush to ratchet profits via heightened use of unproven nutritional claims tied to so-called “nutraceuticals.” In this effort:

many food companies are refocusing their research and development; instead of adding expensive ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes or honey-roasted almonds to existing products, the search is on for inexpensive “value-added” products that customers will pay extra for.

The idea is to prey on people’s ignorance and unexamined (and often corporate news-inculcated) assumptions. Everybody knows that, in the past, food additives have led to major advances in public health. Everybody respects science. Everybody is also exposed to a constant diet of “news” about supposed advances in both food processing and nutritional science. Hence, it’s easy to make new claims for food products that contain various powders and extracts that may or may not have any value in human welfare, but that definitely show extreme promise as facilitators of big business marketers’ usual efforts to use false promises and petty scare tactics to sell more stuff:

Since the 1970s, as nutrition research has progressed beyond “vitamins and minerals,” a variety of new compounds have been touted as the key to health: antioxidants (related to vitamins, these include lycopene, beta-carotene and other plant-based nutrients); long-chain fatty acids like omega-3s, plentiful in fish and some plants; and “probiotics,” the live bacteria in yogurt and fermented vegetables.

There is significant scientific agreement — the standard the Food and Drug Administration requires before foodmakers can place unqualified health claims on packaging — on the benefits of certain nutrients, including calcium, fiber, folate, soy protein, omega-3 fatty acids, lactic acid bacteria and a few others. In food, these have proved to help protect against specific diseases (calcium against osteoporosis, omega-3 fatty acids for heart disease), and many nutritionists believe that they are beneficial in supplement form.

However, recent studies on supplemental vitamin E, beta-carotene and folate (all of which fall into the broad category of “antioxidants”) surprised everyone by showing no benefits whatsoever for cardiovascular disease. “There is a great deal we don’t know about how the compounds in food are made available to the body,” Dr. Alice H. Lichtenstein said.

But whether the nutritional benefits of the original foods survive in additive form is still to be determined. “Whether a tomato is good for you, that’s one thing,” Dr. Kessler said. “Whether the lycopene in a tomato is good for you, that’s another. And then whether synthetic lycopene and microencapsulated lycopene are also good for you, that’s yet another thing.”

Of course, in the face of the corporate marketing imperative, such uncertainties can never matter. Any claim that can be made will be made, as the race for market share and cash flow dictates:

Tropicana offers an orange juice tailored for bone loss, another for acid reflux, and one for weight loss. Many factors are pushing this trend toward health-specific foods: the aging population, changes in labeling rules, the general trend toward micromarketing that makes consumers accept, and soon expect, 12 slightly different Tropicana orange juices on the shelf where one used to be enough for everyone.

And the protection of the public in the whole scam is receiving the usual priority — slim and none. Where any rules exist, they are straight out of the Keystone Kop handbook:

Fortified food is certainly one of the great triumphs of public-health policy. When vitamin-B-enriched flour was introduced in the 1940s, rates of pellagra plummeted. Iodine-fortified salt virtually wiped out goiter, and vitamin-D-enriched milk eliminated rickets in children. But some experts say that such carefully designed campaigns have little in common with the fortified products now turning up in supermarkets.

“Those decisions were based on rigorous public-health studies,” said Dr. Jeffrey Mechanick, a professor of endocrinology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “But the science hasn’t been done on the new nutraceutical products, and the F.D.A.’s current labeling standards are inadequate.”

The agency does not have specific rules for the labeling of functional foods. “It all depends on what type of claim is being made,” said Michael Herndon, an agency spokesman. “An unqualified health claim like ‘calcium reduces your risk of osteoporosis,’ has to be proved in advance. A more general claim like ‘X keeps your heart healthy’ has to be provable by the manufacturer, but we would not require proof in advance.” As with conventional foods, functional foods must clearly state the presence of allergens, like milk or fish, in the ingredients list.

The Food and Drug Administration does not conduct nutritional research. Several other federal agencies do so, but functional foods are not evaluated by any specific office. “Nutraceutical products have characteristics of both food and drugs,” said David A. Kessler, a former commissioner of the F.D.A. “It’s easy for them to slip through the cracks, and the industry is always ahead of the agency.”

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