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Making Functional Foods Functional

Back in 2006, Dannon launched its Activia line of probiotic yogurt and watched it become the hottest new product of the year, racking up more than $100 million in sales. That certainly wasn’t the start of the functional foods movement — but it seems to be the tipping point for the breakneck expansion that followed. Now, shelves are loaded with products that promise to do more than just fill your belly. Everything from cereal to bread to energy bars now touts nutritional and disease-fighting compounds such as omega 3, DHA, fiber, probiotics, you name it. According to a just-released report from the advisory firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, functional foods currently account for 5% of the U.S. food market.

Those are some really impressive numbers. But the dust is starting to settle, and people are taking a closer look at functional foods, and they have some questions. Principal among these: What are functional foods?

Or, to drill down a bit further: What is DHA? Why do I need “double fiber”? And does hawking Activia yogurt finally signal the death knell for Jamie Lee Curtis’s career?

As with many success stories in the retail world, functional foods have lived largely off of marketing hype and consumer hope. But now retailers and manufacturers need to back up these claims. Nutrition experts like Marion Nestle say these products “are about marketing, not health”. And in its report, PricewaterhouseCoopers warned investors to steer clear of the many duds on the market.

Education is crucial, of course, but so is using discretion. Consumers get confused sifting through claim after claim in a crowded aisle. Why not choose the top one or two functional lines in each category — ones backed by good science and a smart education program — and get behind those?