Health-Savvy Wonder Foods

Food makers are capitalizing on our fear of aging and love of technology with new "phoods" and "bepherages" aimed at remedying health woes

We all know you can zap your wrinkles with a shot of botox and fix your vision with a laser beam. Now the European food giant Unilever (UL) hopes to lower your cholesterol with a shot of yogurt. The tiny 3 oz. container is called the Promise Activ Supershot and will be launched in May.

The supershot is only one taste of the recent foods and beverages hitting store shelves that claim to provide nutrition, energy, and medicinal benefits, often in small bite-size packs and containers. The upshot: Americans are clearly comforted by the promise of better health through fortified foods. "Nutrition in the new millennium is dramatically different than it was in the 20th century," says Clare Hassler, director of the Functional Foods for Health Program at the University of Illinois.

Consumer Benefits

In a food industry where the growth rate is crawling at a snail's pace of 3% to 4%, the 20% growth of these new nutritionally enhanced products, referred to as "phoods" and "bepherages" because of their pharmaceutical benefits, offer food manufacturers a unique bright spot.

For instance, Smart Balance Omega Plus Buttery Spread claims to help reduce cholesterol thanks to its super ingredient, omega-3 fatty acids. Airforce Nutrisoda's Renew drink claims to stabilize blood sugar levels, and Heinz's (HNZ) signature tomato ketchup touts its level of lycopene, which is believed to ward off prostate cancer.

Consumers are clearly buying these claims—30% of shoppers say they are more likely to choose foods and beverages because they are fortified with extra vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients, up from 24% in 2002, according to a survey by HealthFocus International, a nutrition-based market researching and consulting firm in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Feeling Entitled

In another survey, 62% of Americans believe that functional foods and beverages can have a positive effect on health, up 17 percentage points from 2003, according to the Natural Marketing Institute, a health and wellness research firm. The survey also found that people rely more on supplements than on food to fight osteoporosis, arthritis, low energy, and vision problems.

Why are these foods growing so fast? A lot of it has to do with baby boomers seeking to age youthfully, employing all the technology they can in the battle with time. Like their botox injections, folks are looking for the same quick fixes from food and drink. "We are in 'The Age of Entitlement,' driven by boomers who feel they have earned 'it' and the Generation Xers who feel they were born deserving 'it,'" says Barbara Katz, president of HealthFocus International.

But how good are these ingredients really? After all, recent research is showing that when foods are broken down into their "healthy" components, they don't necessarily work as well. Nutritionists say that this single-nutrient approach to health is too simplistic. "When studies show that people who eat fruits and vegetables have lower risks of heart disease and cancer, scientists want to know what's in these foods," says Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, and author of What to Eat and Food Politics. "You might isolate a single antioxidant that broccoli has that is good for you, but whether that alone can help prevent cancer is questionable."

Health Smart?

Just recently, the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association reported that after examining 47 different studies on supplements, researchers found that many of them are ineffective and even harmful. For instance, high doses of beta-carotene and vitamins A and E could be harmful. They also found that there was hardly any benefit from taking high doses of vitamin C. "Too much of any one nutrient interferes with the metabolism of others and might even prove to be harmful," says Nestle. "The point is these ingredients act in combination with others in foods, which is what people should be eating."

But clearly, shoppers in the supermarket would rather buy a product that proclaims it can reduce cholesterol, boost energy, and keep heart disease at bay. For instance, Unilever claims that the 2 grams of plant sterols contained in each Promise Activ Supershot are backed by some serious research. Plant sterols are essential components of cell membranes in many fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes. In recent years, studies have shown consistently that plant sterols reduce cholesterol.

Unilever points to 150 clinical studies showing that 2 grams of plant sterols a day can reduce cholesterol levels by 15%. "It would take about 1,000 pounds of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, soy, nuts, and oats to get the necessary 2 grams of plant sterols for effective cholesterol reduction," says Mike Bauer, vice-president and general manager for spreads, dressings, and beverages at Englewood Cliffs, [N.J.]-based Unilever.

Taking a Shot

Bauer also believes that Nestle's argument about one nutrient doesn't apply to plant sterols because "they are fairly unique because they have been clinically proven to have a specific end benefit in so many studies."

That's why Unilever is betting that many people trying to trim their cholesterol will opt for a 3 oz. shot of yogurt instead of trying to down 1,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables. And even if research shows otherwise, the sophistication of these super-enhanced foods and drinks represents a huge competitive lure for plain old food.

Click here to see a slide show of new health-savvy "super" foods.

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