At the supermarket you chose the cereal touting added Omega-3 fatty acids or the one with “added fiber” because it sounds healthier than plain old Cheerios. But what really is the healthier choice?

Have you seen some of these claims? Really? From reducing cholesterol to supporting joint health, are these words on food labels just hype?

Adding more to the marketing mix is the new term “functional food.”

The problem is not in the food label, rather than with the definition of functional food itself.  Functional food is a fast emerging food and nutrition topic. In the United States, there are a number of organizations that define functional foods, differently.

Take flaxseed content claims, for example. Certainly, flaxseeds have been shown cancer protection and anti-inflammatory benefits. They are rich in folate, other B vitamins, iron, protein, and fiber.  But does the tiny flaxseed content in a bar filled with so many other artificial ingredients really make a food that is functional or even healthy?

Too much of a good thing

“Confusion over the functional food and what foods will benefit an individual’s health are a real problem,” says Amanda Berhaupt-Glickstein, MS, RD, co-author of the study “Functional Foods. Perceptions, Attitudes, and Practices of Registered Dietitians,” published in Topics in Clinical Nutrition.

A quick search on functional food shows over a dozen definitions, mostly coming from well-known institutions. The Food Drug Administration (FDA) has no definition established, while the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) defines functional foods as “Whole foods and fortified, enriched, or enhanced foods have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of varied diet on a regular basis, at effective levels.” The International Food Information Council definition of functional foods shows “foods or beverages that may provide benefits beyond basic nutrition.”

Say what?

Based on this definition, pretty much anything from flaxseeds to calcium-enriched orange juice fits into this functional food category. But common sense tells us it’s better to buy an actual orange, which is full of nutrients, fiber, less sugar and fewer calories than orange juice.

Lost in the functionality

Consumers already have a nightmare trying to understand labels and all the nutritional lingo, so how can we expect that consumers don’t get trapped in the marketing boom of functional foods products when registered dietitians (in a study approved by the Commission on Dietetic Registration published in Topics In Clinical Nutrition) says that there was no clear consensus on the definition of functional foods by the 1,800 sample survey.

Less than 20 percent of the sample selected the AND definition. However, when given the food choices their selection matched the AND definition.

Clearly, there’s a discrepancy among the nutritional professionals in this rising and so-in-fashion terminology.  No matter the differences, 61.4 percent  of the survey sample has recommended to their clients functional food in the past year.

Can a juice be better than a fruit?

Interestingly, some of the foods that the dietitians of the study selected as functional foods may add more confusion to what the consumer’s perception is on what makes a healthier food when given some choices.

The dietitian’s picks may be aligned with the AND definition but they seem to be contradictory when looking at studies and researches, and overall guidelines that the same experts preach to the public.

In the fruit category for instance, orange juice with calcium was considered the first choice, surpassing blueberries and whole tomato.  Likewise, in the vegetable ranking, soybean products which has been highly questionably in terms of their health benefits, surpassed avocado and carrots.

Something that was noticed in the study is that when given the choice of the same whole food with added benefit such as choosing between eggs or eggs with Omega-3 fatty acids, the option with the added value was favored – in this case, the second choice. Same thing happens when picking between yogurt or yogurt with probiotics. The last option makes the mark for functional food.

Healthy sales

“My own view is that because there is currently no one accepted or regulated definition of functional foods, the term is best interpreted as a marketing tool designed to sell products. And We know that promoting foods showing particular health benefits can have a powerful effect on sales,” said Berhaupt-Glickstein.

Statistics show that consumers choose foods that are marked as functional foods, so yogurts labeled with probiotics and eggs enriched with Omega 3s are moving quickly off the shelves. While there is still no true parameters for what can be called a functional food, the food industry won’t miss the chance to take the lead to drive consumer’s perceptions to its interest and thus, trying to increase sales.

A learning process

In the end, there are foods that demonstrate the health benefits supported by the FDA.

“Consuming adequate calcium and vitamin D may reduce the risk of osteoporosis or adequate soluble fiber intake may reduce the risk of heart disease,” said Berhaupt-Glickstein.

An easy way to avoid falling for food-marketing gimmicks is to simply select the whole food over processed version even when something healthy sounding has been added. So if the goal is to have calcium in your diet, make sure to have skim milk, yogurt or leafy greens instead of sugary drinks with added calcium. If you want to decrease the risk of heart disease, enjoy more salmon, flaxseeds, oatmeal and potassium-rich fruits instead of a ready-to-go bar with added fiber.

Always check the ingredients; the less that they have, the better for your waist and overall health.

Get informed. Knowledge is power.