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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

"Designer tomatoes" A quick fix for your body and farm?
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John W. Finley

"Functional food" has increasingly become a buzzword for the nineties. Because you may encounter "functional foods" in the grocery store, and because we are in an area that makes its living from agriculture, it is important to know what this term means, and how it applies to us.

There is no concise definition. A functional food has come to mean foods that are enriched in a specific nutrient or claim to have specific health benefits. These properties are then used to help market, or to add value to that product. In an era of less-than-spectacular prices for many agricultural commodities, this should catch the attention of farmers everywhere. However, to the consumer, it may result in a dizzying array of products with claims and counter-claims. How can one sort out the truth from the hype? And, if you are a producer, how do you determine whether these new foods will put cash in your pocket or simply create additional labor?

Functional foods have been around long before the phrase was coined. Canola grown in this area and farther north is one example. Canola was developed from rapeseed, an oilseed that has a healthful mixture of fats, but also contains erucic acid, a potential heart toxin. Consequently, rapeseed was unusable by animals other than cows, sheep or other grazing animals, and its price reflected that. A geneticist developed a strain of erucic acid-free rapeseed that also offered a healthy fat profile - low in saturated fats, moderate in polyunsaturated fatty acids, and a rich source of linoleic and alpha-linolenic acid. Thus canola was born--a functional food that has a place in the kitchen while enhancing the income of those that raise it.

Some "functional foods" have been around long before the term was coined. Milk, for example, is marketed for its ability to build strong bones: "It does a body good". Milk advertising also affords an example of how to separate truth from hype: The claims revolve around milk's calcium content, and the medical profession has long recognized and publicized the need for adequate calcium. Beware of product claims supported only by testimonials and vague medical evidence.

Canola oil and milk are proven products. However, today everyone seems to be getting on the bandwagon, so it is wise to check the claims closer. This is important for both the consumer, and the producer who plans to make a profit. An unsubstantiated fad may fade quickly. As a consumer, you may have lost a few dollars (and a lot of confidence), but as a producer you may be left with high production costs and no market.

Examples of foods that hold promise but do not yet have clinically proven results are some foods billed as rich in antioxidants (eg. a strain of tomatoes has been developed with a high concentration of an antioxidant chemical). While producers of these foods may be completely honest about what is in the product, the consumer must be aware of several facts. First, because a chemical functions as an antioxidant in the test tube does not mean that the food containing it will do the same in the body. Also, many of these foods have not been tested in humans, so human claims are implied, not clinically proven. Second, the chemical composition of a food, especially its mineral content, can vary widely from year to year. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate these products, so "Caveat Emptor - Let the Buyer Beware"!

The above does not imply that "functional foods" have no value. Indeed, many foods do appear to hold great promise in their ability to deliver nutrients or chemicals that may enhance health. But the science is young, and the business is volatile. Consumers should be wise, and farmers should remember that, at best, these products are a high risk business.

Last Modified: 10/23/2006
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