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Let Food Be Thy Medicine


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Hippocrates uttered the famous statement, but today's food manufacturers are taking it to an entirely new level. Health-conscious Baby Boomers have made functional foods one of the most popular nutrition trends of the past decade. This focus on functional foods, or "nutraceuticals," has enticed people to look to food before medicine as an answer to preventative health care. Functional foods have become a multi-billion dollar business. What started as promotion for the health benefits of some foods (such as "oats lower cholesterol" or "the lycopene in tomatoes may help prevent cancer") has morphed into a nutritional additive industry.

Today, there are products that tout unbelievable claims. There are chocolate bars that help the heart and margarines that lower cholesterol. There are pastas and milks that say they can fight against heart disease. So many products have hit the market that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began hearings to initiate regulations of so-called functional foods and to test their effectiveness.

Do these products live up to their claims? Are they worth the money? In some part, functional foods are a benefit to people who don't make the best choices in their daily diets or cannot eat specific foods due to allergies. For example, a woman who is lactose intolerant cannot benefit from the calcium in milk. However, by consuming a calcium-fortified juice, she can acquire the needed calcium for health. Experts say that many of the functional foods out there need to be eaten in high quantities to realize health benefits. In many cases, the extra calories or the extra fat or sodium may negate the benefits.

Look at the trend toward consuming omega-3s, essential fatty acids found in flax seed, olive oil, and many fish. Omega-3s have a number of health benefits such as improving heart health and neurological function. The American Heart Association recommends 2,000 mg a week of omega-3s to prevent heart disease. It could take 4-10 servings of many fortified pastas or beverages to attain this level. While it only takes two servings of a fatty fish or fish-oil supplement to reach the same level.

If you're thinking about functional foods, consider the following prior to purchasing:

Well-rounded diets typically provide enough nutrition to make functional foods unnecessary. Buy a supplement if you lack a specific nutrient.

Functional food should be a healthy addition to your diet and a medicinal benefit.

Is the claim for real? The FDA mandates specific research to back up a positive link between disease risk and a food. A general claim, such as "promotes heart health," does not need back-up and may not be very meaningful.

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