It’s no secret that I am adamantly against processed food products that make health claims. And my post about added pro-biotics in yogurt still gets numerous hits each day, which makes me think that this is an issue that confuses the average consumer.

Health and nutrition are hot topics, and large food processors have figured out that anything with an aura of health around it sells better. This phenomenon is actually called the “health halo” or “health aura”, and stems from the fact that people will eat (and by extension, purchase) more of a product that they believe to be healthful. This leads to additional health problems as consumers end up taking in greater numbers of calories, fat, sugar and salt, defeating any impression of healthfulness the food might have had.

Currently, labelling laws in Canada prohibit a great number of these products from being fortified with unnecessary vitamins, and also prohibit those same companies from making health claims. Manufacturers, hoping to target a health-oriented society by fortifying products that are essentially junk food, are pushing Health Canada to speed up the decision-making process that would see these fortified products, emblazoned with health claims, on supermarket shelves.

Of course, the amount of fortification added to many products in negligible, and many items, such as the antioxidants in green tea, would require the consumption of significant amounts of the product to deliver even a small level of nutritional benefit. But, as always, there’s much more to it than these corporations having great care and concern for their customers’ health.

The additional red tape and lost sales cost the industry $440 million, according to the study by the George Morris Centre in Guelph.

And while these companies cite a US model that permits health claims on processed foods, the Food and Drug Administration in the US appears to be tightening their criteria. Cheerios cereal has been pushing claims, both on the packaging and in print and television commercials, that consumers can lower their cholesterol by 4% in 6 weeks by eating two bowls of Cheerios every day. The FDA has contacted General Mills with a letter indicating that if Cheerios lowers cholesterol at the purported rate, then that claim makes it a statin drug… not a food. And the product therefore has to be treated like a drug.

Cheerios, says the FDA, “is not generally recognized as safe and effective for use in preventing or treating hypercholesterolemia or coronary heart disease. Therefore…it may not be legally marketed with the above claims in the United States without an approved new drug application.”

Critics say that instead of adding useless amounts of vitamins to processed junk foods, they’d like to see these companies make more of an effort to lower the amounts of fat, sugar and sodium in the products. But as long as there is money to be made by confusing consumers with a health halo, it’s unlikely that the deluge of functional foods will stop any time soon.

One of the tenets of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food is “don’t eat food that makes health claims“. Foods that make health claims generally have something to hide. If your diet is missing some essential nutrient, it makes the most sense to get it from a natural source instead of a bag of chips, soda pop, or processed cereal. Eating a well-balanced diet focused on fruit and vegetables, nuts and legumes, whole grains, and small amounts of lean meat should give most people all the vitamins and minerals they need. Real, plain yogurt works better than the stuff with the added bacteria; regular water quenches a thirst better than a product with added protein (in water???); the benefits of cranberry or orange juice are not significantly enhanced with extra vitamins.

Unfortunately, most consumers don’t know that, and these food companies are depending on that lack of knowledge to sell their products. We hear buzzwords in the media; antioxidant, pro-biotics, and see health claims like “lowers cholesterol.”

But if a product purports to have the magic bullet that will solve all your health problems, it’s probably too good to be true. In the long run, it’s probably cheaper, and better for your body, to just eat real food, and not try to get your nutrients from processed junk.