WASHINGTON — There is food, and then there is superfood.
Salmon, trout and albacore tuna may reduce the risk of heart disease. So may olive oil, almonds, walnuts, Cheerios and Boca Burgers.
These foods, which go beyond basic nutrition and help fight disease or make you healthier, are what shoppers increasingly want.
At a health food store in St. Louis, Inda Schaenen loaded her cart with whole-grain bread, brown rice, beans and green leaf lettuce — all labeled as “superfoods.”
“I have three growing children, so I look for foods high in vitamins, fiber and protein,” said Schaenen, a 44-year-old writer. “I don’t want growth hormones and pesticide.”
From berries to nuts and seeds
Wild Oats, a chain of health food stores, is promoting 20 different “superfoods,” from berries to seeds and yogurt. Not only are they healthier because of fewer calories, they add vitamins and minerals, cancer-fighting antioxidants and other healthy components.
“We wanted to say, ‘Here are things you should be adding to your diet, rather than taking things away,”’ said Wild Oats spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele. “If you’re going to buy nuts, choose almonds. If you’re going to buy deli meat, choose boneless, skinless turkey breast.”
Nine in 10 shoppers have bought foods because the packages had health or nutritional claims, according to a 2004 survey by the Food Marketing Institute, which represents retailers and wholesalers.
Companies introduced 658 new whole-grain products last year, market research firm A.C. Nielsen said. Also, there were 825 new products claiming to be good or excellent sources of calcium.
Taste over nutrition
But buying healthier food is not yet a trend, said analyst Harry Balzer of the consumer research firm NPD Group.
Americans still care more about how food tastes, whether it is convenient and how much it costs, Balzer said. Interest in food that carries health claims dipped in the mid-1990s and is only now beginning to rebound, he said.
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“We often mistake trying new things as a trend,” Balzer said. “What we’re really looking at is Americans’ desire to find ‘new.”’
More of these disease-fighting, health-promoting foods are finding a market, according to the Institute of Food Technologists, the leading professional society in the food science field.
Researchers have found food components with potential to improve memory, ease arthritis and fight heart disease. The report also found that the government often stands in the way of people learning the health-inducing benefits of some products.
For example, juice makers can claim that cranberry products help maintain urinary tract health, but they cannot say cranberry juice cocktail prevents urinary tract infections. That claim is legal in France.
The makers of the butter-like spread Take Control had clinical studies showing it lowers cholesterol. But until they got approval from the Food and Drug Administration, they couldn’t put it on the label.
“They had to say something like, ‘Maintains healthy levels of cholesterol,”’ said Fergus Clydesdale, a food science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who headed the study.
“What does it mean? What’s a healthy level?” Clydesdale said. “That isn’t very good — matter of fact, it isn’t true. We knew the product lowered cholesterol.”
FDA approval process may change
In the grocery store, shoppers might see these claims on Cheerios, which has soluble oat fiber that can reduce the risk of heart disease, or on Boca Burgers, which has soy protein that can also fight heart disease. Yoplait’s Heart Healthy yogurt has cholesterol-reducing plant sterols, and similar sterols and stanols are found in Take Control and BENECOL spreads.
Last year, the FDA approved new health claims for the monounsaturated fat in olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, saying both have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. The claims are qualified; labels must say research is not conclusive.
Under review is whether products containing lycopene, found in tomatoes and watermelon, can claim the potential to reduce the risk of cancer, particularly prostate cancer.
The scientists recommended several changes in the FDA’s approval process. FDA spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings said the agency is reviewing the report.
The group also suggests rewarding tax breaks and exclusivity, similar to a patent, to food companies that develop new foods. Both would require action by Congress.
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