ANAHEIM — Consumers have long been able to buy juice fortified with vitamin C or tea containing herbs. And makers of cereal and other grain products for years have quietly enhanced their offerings with vitamins or minerals.
But there is nothing quiet about the latest marriages between food products and dietary supplements. No longer satisfied with selling vitamins, minerals and herbs in little pills or tinctures, natural products companies are promoting "functional foods,"' meaning foods that contain additional nutrients and play a role greater than simply providing inherent nutrients and enjoyable taste.
"Functional foods are food products that have been fortified with something extra," said Karen Raterman, editorial director for trade publications for New Hope Natural Media, a natural products industry organization. "It's not like this is a new idea; we've had herbal teas for a long time. But we're starting to see it in a lot of other categories."
The trend was on full display here this past weekend at the Natural Products Expo West, which attracted an estimated 31,000 people. The annual trade show, held at the Anaheim Convention Center, draws retailers and manufacturers of natural products from around the world.
Among functional foods on display were a soup containing the herb echinacea, which is touted to boost the immune system and help ward off viruses; several new juice products; snacks; even candy that supposedly can improve children's attention spans or can ward off infections. Several companies have announced plans to launch margarines and salad dressings containing dietary supplements.
The trend has caught the eye of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has been given the task of figuring out whether some of these products are conventional foods or dietary supplements. Each category is governed by a different set of laws regarding labeling, quality assurance and health claims.
"It's getting tricky in this industry, because a lot of these products are sold as dietary supplements. But when you add supplements to food it takes them out of the supplement [regulatory] category," Raterman said.
Right now, the FDA and natural products manufacturers are eyeing each other's moves like a couple of chess opponents. In a closely watched case, the FDA ruled last fall that McNeil Consumer Products, a division of Johnson & Johnson, could not market its new fortified margarine Benecol as a dietary supplement.
Benecol contains stanol ester, a natural substance extracted from pine trees. A study by researchers at the Mayo Clinic showed that people can reduce their LDL, or bad, cholesterol by up to 14% by eating Benecol regularly. The product is popular in parts of Europe.
McNeil wanted to market the product as a dietary supplement but sell it in grocery store coolers alongside regular butter, margarine and spreads. And, under the liberal wording of the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health Education Act, the company could then make a claim that the product lowers cholesterol. But the FDA ruled that Benecol is a food.
"We were going to introduce it as a dietary supplement in food form. The FDA expressed concern over that. And our agreement with them to go to market as a conventional food represents their desires and our desire to work with them," said Amy Weiseman, director of communications for McNeil Consumer Products.
If the company had packaged the stanol ester in a pill, it could have qualified as a dietary supplement. But the company found that the substance did not work well in a tablet form and was most effective when mixed into a margarine spread.
"For the FDA, a product has to be a conventional food, a dietary supplement or a food additive. There are a lot of questions around how you define a functional food, given that it doesn't have a regulatory classification. We are only the first of many companies that will have questions about this. This will probably be one of the biggest trends in the coming years," Weiseman said.
Benecol should arrive in stores nationwide in the near future.
"Everyone in the industry has really been watching the Benecol decision closely as a test case for functional foods," Raterman said. "I don't know that anyone who helped write DSHEA [dietary supplement act] thought these [vitamins and herbs] would be put in juices and margarine and then called dietary supplements."
The boom in functional foods reflects consumers' desires for easier ways to supplement their diets, she said.
"It's much more enjoyable to have a tasty soup to take your echinacea than to take it in a tincture," Raterman notes. "Echinacea is kind of bitter tasting."
Consumers will probably notice functional juices more than any other product. While leading juice manufacturers have been selling calcium-fortified orange juice for several years, a host of smaller companies are taking a quite different approach: They are marketing fruit juices by touting the dietary supplement first and the fruit or taste second.