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FDA hearing targets 'functional' foods



Published: Thu, October 26, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



Sales of such foods have increased, a study found.

MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS

WASHINGTON -- It's time to taste-test some new rules for "functional" foods, federal officials declared Wednesday.

These are foods that pack a special punch, or at least so their labels suggest. Grocery store shelves abound with them.

Snapple "Moon" tea offers kava kava to "enlighten your senses." Odwalla's "Serious Energy" drink contains "energy sustaining herbs" such as gotu kola. Ben & amp; Jerry's "Raspberry Renewal" smoothie includes "energizing" ginseng.

While enhanced foods proliferate, critics grow more alarmed, enough so that federal regulators will give everyone a chance to weigh in with a public hearing. This could be the bureaucratic equivalent of empty calories. Alternatively, it could fuel a move toward stricter labeling standards.

"We believe that it would be in the best interest of public health to begin a dialogue with industry, consumers and other stakeholders regarding the regulation of these products," the Food and Drug Administration said.

What they have

Functional foods have extraneous but supposedly beneficial ingredients added. It could be as simple as orange juice fortified with calcium.

Americans are gobbling them up. Functional food sales increased from an estimated $11.3 billion in 1995 to $16.2 billion in 1999, a 2000 study by the then-General Accounting Office noted.

Propelled by savvy marketing and health-conscious baby boomers, functional food sales were projected to reach $49 billion by 2010.

But estimates and regulations alike can be squishy, because there's no official definition of "functional food." The FDA's reach also is limited.

Claiming that soy protein may reduce the risk of heart disease requires formal FDA review. However, describing Odwalla's "Think Drink" with gingko biloba as a beverage "with two brain-boosting botanicals used ... to stimulate thinking centers of the mind" does not.

Critics worry that this ambiguity cracks open a regulatory loophole.

Federal agencies "provide limited assistance to consumers in making informed choices and do little to protect them against inaccurate and misleading claims," the GAO warned in its 2000 study of functional foods.




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