It looks like regular yogurt. It tastes like regular yogurt. But Yoplait Healthy Heart, according to its maker, is super-yogurt. Released in March, Yoplait Healthy Heart is the first yogurt in the U.S. to serve up plant sterols -- naturally occurring substances that scientific research shows may inhibit the absorption of cholesterol. Two six-ounce servings of Yoplait Healthy Heart provide 0.8 grams of plant sterols -- the equivalent of 22 servings of brussels sprouts, 26 oranges, 44 apples, or 70 large carrots.
We're in the midst of an all-out "phood" fight as dozens of foods and beverages fortified with pharmaceutical-like ingredients hit the market. Besides Yoplait's latest, other recent launches include Dannon's (DA) DanActive, a drink that contains 10 times the culture found in traditional yogurt and claims to "strengthen your body's natural defenses"; Logic Juice 4 Joints, a fruit drink with glucosamine and chondroitin that may ease arthritis and joint pain; and Omega eggs, from chickens fed a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are believed to reduce the risk of heart disease. These join such established functional foods, or neutraceuticals, as Benecol spreads, which also contain plant sterols; Kellogg's (K) Smart Start cereals, enriched with antioxidants or soy protein, and Wonder Bread with added folic acid.
There's more under development. On Mar. 15 scientists at the Agriculture Dept. reported that the cellulose derivative HPMC helped prevent hamsters on a high-fat diet from absorbing fat and developing insulin resistance, a precursor to Type 2 diabetes. Should human studies confirm the findings, the tasteless, colorless compound could enhance hamburgers, hot dogs, and fried chicken within two years. "Obviously, the less fat you eat, the better off you are," USDA researcher Wallace H. Yokoyama told the Mar. 15 meeting of the American Chemical Society. "But if you're going to eat high-fat foods, adding HPMC to them might limit the damage."
The growing food-with-a-boost phenomenon stems from both the easing of food-labeling laws and the industry's desire to appeal to health-conscious baby boomers. According to a 2004 study by the Food Marketing Institute, 56% of Americans strongly agree that eating well is a better way to prevent health problems than taking drugs.
The proof is at the checkout line: Sales of packaged bread with a nutraceutical component rose 16%, vs. a 0.6% decline for bread overall, says market research firm Packaged Facts. Sales of yogurt and yogurt drinks with additives rocketed 22%, compared with 6% for all yogurts. Overall, functional-food sales totaled $7.3 billion in 2004, up 5% from 2003, compared with a 2.6% growth rate of supermarket sales. Although you pay a premium for some newcomers, such as Yoplait Healthy Heart, most cost the same as their regular counterparts, says Packaged Facts.
Clearly, the industry likes functional foods. But should consumers seek them out? Nutritionists argue that many of them don't contain enough benefits to make up for their nutritional drawbacks, such as high sugar or fat content. Plus, they say, it's always better to get nutrients naturally: If you want omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, eat oily fish, such as wild salmon -- not multigrain pizza fortified with them, which Canada's Pizza Pizza chain introduced on Feb. 15. "Often you get one healthy ingredient in a not-so-healthy food," says Dr. Andrew Weil, founder of the University of Arizona's Program in Integrative Medicine. "That concerns me as a physician."
Still, if you can't stand salmon or want a concentrated dose of plant sterols without eating 70 carrots, some of these foods may be worthwhile. Before you buy, start by reading the label. The Food & Drug Administration sanctions two kinds of health claims: unqualified, in which the stated benefit relating to a specific disease is backed by scientific research, and qualified, where the FDA evaluation of the evidence is not conclusive. Vague claims -- which make no mention of a disease but offer generalizations such as "improves heart health" or "builds strong bones" -- have no FDA stamp of approval.
Few of these foods can make any claims yet. But products with plant sterols can offer unqualified claims to reduce cholesterol. Omega-3-enhanced foods can display a qualified statement about heart disease, and antioxidant-enriched foods can make qualified claims of reducing cancer risk. Breads fortified with folic acid can make a qualified claim to lessening the chances of neural-tube defects in babies -- but not to lowering the risk of heart disease and stroke, as studies have suggested.
HOW MUCH DO YOU NEED?
If you're satisfied with the health claim, check the amount of additive per serving. Often one serving contains far less than is required to improve health. With DanActive, just one 3.3-oz. bottle is recommended each day, but you must eat two servings of Yoplait's Healthy Heart yogurt each day get 0.8 grams of plant sterols. Over four weeks, you'll receive the advertised benefit of a 6% reduction in "bad" LDL cholesterol, as calculated in a 1999 plant-sterol study in European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. For a therapeutic dose of glucosamine, studies show you need a minimum of 1,000 mg. each day. A 12-oz. can of Juice 4 Joints contains 1,250 grams, while Glacéau's popular Vitamin Water "Balance" cran-grapefruit flavor contains just 250 grams in a 20-oz. bottle.
Be sure you're not getting a heavy dose of fat or sugar that counteracts the benefit. Dark chocolate has antioxidants, says Madelyn H. Fernstrom, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Weight Management Center, but eating it to cut cancer risk is no excuse for a high-calorie snack. A better option is green tea.
Of course, if you're going to eat a piece of chocolate anyway, you're better off with dark. And if you love yogurt and have a family history of heart disease, an extra helping of plant sterols can't hurt.
By Jane Black