What's Functional About Added Herbs and Nutrients?

05-00-0.36-1func-foodsA.jpg

Content Tools

When Earl Lay tried his first herbal soft drink last year, it worked so well that it scared him. The thirty-six-year-old hospital security officer and reformed espresso addict was on a camping trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota. After a seven-hour drive and too little sleep the night before, he was ready for a pick-me-up.

“The gas station didn’t have my usual brand of iced tea, but I saw this stuff I’d been curious about,” he recalls. The “stuff” was SoBe Energy, one of a line of herb-containing soft drinks in 20-ounce lizard-decorated bottles. It contained guarana, yohimbe, and arginine.

Lay polished off half the bottle before checking the ingredients. One of the flavorings was orange juice concentrate. “Every time I touch anything with orange in it, it messes me up something fierce. I get pounding headaches,” he says.

Lay was mad at himself that he had consumed something so potentially troublesome. And he thinks that the adrenaline rush that his anger produced combined with the stimulants in the soft drink to produce an unexpected and worrisome “buzz.”

When he and his friends got to the campsite, “I felt like my hairs were shooting off sparks,” he recounts. “I couldn’t burn off the energy I had. And people could feel my body heat four feet away.” Lay thinks that he didn’t have his usual bad reaction to the orange extract, and he now drinks the product as an alternative to caffeinated tea.

Lay certainly isn’t alone in being intrigued and attracted by products called “functional foods,” a term coined for beverage or food items with added nutrients or other ingredients meant to influence health. In fact, looking at just the beverage section of this segment of the natural products industry can boggle the mind. There are stimulants, sedatives, and drinks that claim to boost brain power. There are slim cans spiked with aloe vera and nettles to chase away hangovers, or echinacea and schisandra to fend off colds. There are even aphrodisiac beverages. Candy may be dandy to put your sweetie in the mood, but one manufacturer claims that a 20-ounce bottle of black cherry-flavored sugar water spiked with yohimbe, damiana, and muira puama is quicker. (It doesn’t yet rhyme, but they’re probably working on it.)

In addition to the herb-spiked drinks that are currently getting a lot of attention, there are also herb-laced energy bars, nutrient-enhanced soups and spaghetti sauces, and vitamin-jolted just about anything.

What’s a consumer to do—and more important, what can consumers believe?

Buyer Beware

First of all, as Lay learned, read the label—especially if you have any allergies or medical conditions or are taking any prescription drugs. Second, understand that right now, these types of functional foods are a burgeoning marketplace with few regulations, and some producers aren’t even following the ones that exist. That means “it’s still buyer beware,” says Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA).

McGuffin doesn’t even like the term functional foods, nor does he embrace “nutraceuticals,” another word coined to describe the phenomenon of adding to foods vitamins, nutrients, minerals, herbs, or other compounds meant to have a health effect. Consumers also need to realize that this phenomenon isn’t new, he says.

“We grew up on functional foods—Wheaties, for example,” he says. For two generations, the most broadly used delivery device for nutrient-enhanced food has been fortified cereals. And McGuffin points out that it’s an honorable history that other nations have emulated. The Mexican government, for example, convinced large manufacturers of masa, or corn flour, to enrich the traditional staple with minimal amounts of critical vitamins. In only two years’ time, McGuffin says, health authorities there saw marked changes in children’s health and school performance. He also points out that one American herbal soft drink, Corr’s Ginseng Rush, has been around for decades.

On the other hand, the recent trend of adding botanicals to snack foods is cause for some concern at AHPA, a voluntary association of herbal product manufacturers that encourages best manufacturing and labeling practices.

“We call some of these products ‘fairy dust,’ ” he says, meaning that the can, bottle, or bar doesn’t deliver enough of a particular herb to exert a healing effect. Or it may contain an herb that must be taken continuously for weeks to yield its benefits. Many products don’t even list the amount of their herbal ingredients.

Steven Foster, lead editorial adviser for Herbs for Health, is even more skeptical about the worth of such products. “You need to ask yourself, ‘Is this actually a functional ingredient, or is it a trace amount for marketing purposes?’ Most often, it’s a marketing ploy. And it tends to dilute the true value of using herbs for health benefits in the minds of the public.”

That said, Foster admits that the marketing ploys work—even on him. “When I go to my health-food store, I pick up a can of Corr’s as a treat.” While discussing the topic, he knocked back a few swigs from a sample bottle of a SoBe product containing echinacea, zinc, and vitamin C that the Florida-based manufacturer had sent him.

“And it’s quite tasty, because I love sugar,” he admitted. “But the larger question is, how much sugar or corn syrup do you have to ingest to get an effective dose of echinacea? Is it enough that you might as well be eating Ben & Jerry’s?”

Even on products that list their herbal ingredients in milligrams, it can be impossible for consumers to assess the dose, Foster points out. For example, if a bottle says it delivers 100 mg of ginseng, what kind of ginseng is it? Herbal extracts come in various concentrations; few labels disclose the extract strength. For echinacea, most of the research has been done on alcohol extracts of the root of Echinacea purpurea, one of three Echinacea species. But finding a functional food in your grocery store that lists which species and which plant part of echinacea it contains would be a scavenger-hunt challenge of Olympic proportions.

Attempts at Regulation

That may change in the future, if AHPA has its way, McGuffin says. The association is in the process of drafting a position paper that says unless a product delivers an amount of a substance that’s generally recognized as effective, then it can only list the substance as an ingredient. Therefore, the name of the herb can’t be featured on the product’s front, and it can’t be included in the marketing literature in a manner that is inconsistent with the amount the product contains.

But the regulatory process is slow, and AHPA’s guidelines are voluntary. “Deciding how to handle these products is fraught with problems,” McGuffin acknowledges. On the one hand, there’s the concern that a meaningful dose of an herb could lead to an overdose.

“If you’re putting a meaningful dose of kava-kava [a sedative and muscle-relaxing herb] in corn chips, and the chips are really good, so you eat three bags, the question becomes, did the manufacturer put a caution about operating heavy machinery on the bag? On the other hand, there’s the problem of people buying these products and not seeing any benefits.”

While AHPA’s guidelines are voluntary, those of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are not. And be assured, McGuffin says, the FDA is watching.

“The FDA is not happy with this idea that you can sell dietary supplements in any form you want to,” McGuffin says. And there are many herbally enhanced products that make health claims on the label that ­violate the regulation compromise that the FDA and herbal products ­industry hashed out in 1994—the Dietary Supplements Health Education Act (DSHEA).

For example, one 20-ounce product touts its ginseng, wolfberry, and guarana as “herbs that energize the body and strengthen the immune system.” According to McGuffin, those words constitute a health claim that requires the bottle to also carry a required disclaimer explaining that the FDA has not evaluated the claim, and that the product is not meant to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease. Because the bottle doesn’t carry the disclaimer, the manufacturer is probably in violation, McGuffin says. And they’re not alone.

“I don’t think that most of these companies are scofflaws,” McGuffin says. “They just don’t understand the regulations, because the regulations are complex.”

Reaping Benefits

With all of these problems, can the functional food trend have any benefits for the consumer?

“I think that there is potential gain,” McGuffin says. He wishes manufacturers would focus on herbs that have a long ­tradition as safe, health-enhancing parts of traditional diets. “Kava, for example, is a food in its South Pacific culture. We’re the ones twisting it into a dietary supplement. In China, mama puts dong quai and astragalus into the soup pot all the time. There is a reason to put botanicals in a food form.”

Good thing, because it’s happening, whether for valid reasons or no reasons. While no one knows yet how much this segment of the nearly $28.5 billion nutritional products industry is worth, nearly everyone agrees that it’s growing.

Snapple has recently introduced two new flavors to its line of six herb-spiked drinks. SoBe now produces twenty flavors. And Go-Go—the skinny silver cans decked out with a miniskirted, go-go girl—has seven.

“If you’re asking, is this the real thing, or a bump in the road?—well, it’s more than real,” says Ed Hirschberg, president of Innovative Foods, Inc. His business comes up with formulas and manufacturing processes for new foods.

Hirschberg’s projects include adding ­vitamins A, C, E, and calcium to carrot slices that are then dehydrated to become a snack food. He knows that companies large and small are watching the trends and technology of functional foods very closely.

“They’re all trying to learn what they can. They’re in investigative mode,” Hirsch­berg says. Agricultural conglomerates, for example, are researching soy products and ways to get soy’s healing isoflavones into higher concentrations and more palatable foods, and finding out what benefits from such compounds can be clinically proven. Such corporations, says Hirschberg, may reap huge gains from functional foods. “They lose nothing but money, and they’ve got ­plenty of that.”

Corporate affiliates of the University of Illinois’s Functional Foods pro­gram, for example, pay for a three-year ­mem­bership, for which they get contact with professors and researchers, a closed ­conference every two years, and other benefits. The program was set up in 1992 to foster research into functional foods.

While that research is under way, small companies are zooming into the gap. Clif Bar of Berkeley, California, is already marketing an energy bar to women that contains soy protein, but it makes no health claims about its soy content on the label.

Hirschberg predicts the phenomenon “is only going to grow in importance—but it’s not going to grow fast.”

So eventually, you’ll be able to throw out all those bottles of capsules in favor of nutrient- and herb-enhanced foods, right? Not quite.

A Place for Everything

“People aren’t going to ditch their multivitamins because of these products,” says Catherine Monahan, managing editor of Nutrition Science News. For one thing, consumers would have to read too much fine print and do too much math to total up their daily nutrient intake. And everyone she has spoken with on the topic thinks that the two markets are very separate, though both are viable and expected to remain so. Most ­experts predict that consumers will use functional foods to maintain health, whereas they’ll turn to specific supplements if they have a specific health complaint to address.

Hirschberg says he believes that consumers may choose foods over pills when the ingredient in question is proven effective, delivered in a high enough dose, and is palatable. In fact, he’s working on such a product right now; it involves putting the prostate-gland-protecting compounds found in saw palmetto into cranberries.

For now, Hirschberg takes his saw palmetto in capsules. He’s eager, however, to see what the future might hold for other supplements. “There’s no limit to what can be done.”


Susan Clotfelter edits herb books for Interweave Press and is the author of The Herb Tea Book (Interweave Press, 1998). She eagerly awaits the day when she can get a functional dose of ginseng and her RDA of B6 in a chocolate peanut-butter cup.