We encounter functional foods every day. Cereals promising to lower your cholesterol, milk to improve brain function, vitamin-enhanced water to boost your immune system. Not surprisingly, it is a big business -- U.S. sales in 2009 exceeded $37 billion. Manufacturers have become adept at tip toeing towards the point at which their product must be labeled for "medical" use that would require strict regulation and a physician's supervision, without ever crossing the line.
Attaching scientific and medical claims on food products seems to be more and more appealing to an aging population, often accepting the supposed added benefits with blind faith. The Federal Trade Commission, however, has pushed back by filing deceptive marketing complaints against companies such as Kellogg and Dannon.
Functional foods are generating increasing interest from researchers far and wide. This August, the University of San Diego will be hosting the 9th International Conference on "Functional Food Components in Health and Disease." Here's a sample of seminar topics; many of these may be familiar to you from recent grocery shopping:
Functional Food Components: source and potential benefits in health
• Fatty Acids: functional food components, source, potential benefits
• Omega-3s(α-linolenic acid-ALA, eicosapentaenoic acid -EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid - DHA), for Chronic Diseases
• Prebiotics and Probiotics: functional components, source, potential benefits
• Plant Sterols: functional components, source, potential benefits
• Phenolics: functional components, source, potential benefits
• Dietary Fibers: functional components, source, potential benefits
• Carotenoids: functional components, source, potential benefits
• Phytoestrogens: functional components, source, potential benefits
• Encapsulation of Functional Food Components, bioavailability, target delivery, monitoring potential benefits
Functional Food Components and Chronic Diseases:
• Functional Food Components and Obesity
• Functional Food Components and Diabetes
• Functional Food Components and Cardiovascular Disorders
• Functional Food Components and Cancer
• Nutritional Prevention of Neurodegenerative Diseases (Vitamin D3, Curcuminoids, Omega-3).
• Functional Food Components and other Chronic Diseases
• Amino-Acid therapy for Reward Deficiency Syndrome (addiction)
Let's step back for a moment and consider something that could be the world's best functional food. This item boasts the following benefits (not an inclusive list):
Can you guess what it is? Imagine these claims are featured prominently on its label in the store.
Reduces risk of, but does not cure, sinus and bladder infections!
Staves off the common cold and flu!
Makes minerals and other nutrients more accessible to the body!
Regulates body temperature!
Extends physical endurance!
It is the centerpiece of the new Disney film, "Pirates of the Caribbean 4 - On Stranger Tides."
Here's a hint: Referred to in the film as "aqua de vita," it has zero calories. Yes, the world's best "functional food" item could indeed be water -- it need not have the magical properties attributed to Ponce de León's "Fountain of Youth" with the required drop of a mermaid's tear.
Most, if not all, of these benefits can be enjoyed by drinking eight 8 ounce glasses of water per day, referred to as the "8 by 8" rule by the Mayo Clinic. And the best part -- you need not purchase it at the store -- you can draw upon any faucet.
A version of this commentary was published in the Sunday Business section of The New York Times (May 22) in response to "Foods With Benefits, or So They Say."