“Value added” value meal?

I have to admit that I don’t understand the flavoured ‘vitamin enriched’ water thing. If water was supposed to have vitamins in it, wouldn’t it already? It’s part of the “functional food” concept, an idea that is being hailed as the new defense against sickness and obesity by the companies promoting them. Like genetically modified foods however, this idea sends up a red flag for many.

In trying to do some research on functional foods, I realized that there are discrepancies as to what the term actually means. Some define it as “foods or dietary components that may provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition” (International Food Information Council, 2006). Under this definition, foods such as flaxseeds, oats, carrots, tomatoes, broccoli, legumes, eggs – actually almost anything that you know is good for you – can be classified as a functional food, based on the recognized health benefits of certain nutrients they contain.

Most of the time though, this term refers to foods that are “value added”. These are foods that have key nutrients added to them in order to make them healthier. The classic example of this is regular table salt which has had iodine added to it for years in order to prevent goiter in large parts of the population. Could this possibly be a bad thing?

Our knowledge of nutrition is still far from complete, there are new discoveries being made all the time. There was a time a few years ago when supplement companies spent a lot of money researching the key or “active” ingredients in herbs that made them beneficial. They would then make capsules that only contained the active part of the plant. Technically, this should have produced capsules that worked better then the herbs had before, but this wasn’t always the case. The components in plants have a synergistic affect that is greater than the sum of their parts.

This holds true with foods as well. An orange provides more than just vitamin C. Getting nutrients from foods means that the co-factors that enhance absorption and allow for the best use are right there in the meal. Simply adding vitamin C to water does not do this. People get the best nutrition by eating whole foods and taking high quality supplements to shore up the weak spots. Food-based supplements are often designed with several vitamins and minerals working together to improve absorption.

What concerns me is the idea that people may think the added vitamins are enough to make an un-healthy product healthy. In truth, no amount of extra vitamin C or added antioxidants could ever make a can of pop good for you, but a label breathlessly exclaiming the vitamin’s health benefits may confuse the issue. As Sandra Tonn (assistant editor of Health Action magazine) recently pointed out, “The fact that Coca-Cola Co. and Nestle are leading the pack in functional food acquisitions should be a clue about the value of these so called improved foods.”

In other words, a jelly-bean by any other name is still a jelly-bean, even if it does contain electrolytes.

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