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Functional Foods ...Health Boosters—Or Not? 

Before i sat down to write this health column, I headed to my kitchen. No, it wasn’t for a nosh. Rather I was looking through the pantry and fridge to see how many "functional foods" I had. Turns out, I had a lot.

Cookie Crisp cereal and Wonder bread—both made with whole grains. Quaker Oats banana bread oatmeal with added protein and fiber. Tropicana orange juice with omega-3 fish oils. Promise yogurt with plant sterols.

Functional foods are foods that have extra "stuff" in them and may provide additional health benefits beyond basic nutrition. If you haven’t noticed, they are all the rage in supermarkets these days.

Barbara Bohl of Naples has seen the trend and has tried some products herself, including yogurts that regulate the digestive tract, fruit juices with a hidden serving of vegetables inside, even snack chips made with vegetables.

"They look like little dried French fries, and they’ve been made with tomato, spinach and potato," Bohl says. "They’re pretty good, actually."

Who wouldn’t want to help their heart with a chocolate bar or get vitamins in a bottle of water? Unfortunately, local health and medical experts are less than sold on these functional foods.

"We have a population that wants a quick fix for everything," says Ginger Patterson, a registered dietician in Fort Myers. "If we can eat a food that does three things for us rather than one thing, this must be better. It’s just the mentality of the nation."

Patterson, who doesn’t mince words, ticks off her list of concerns about many of the most popular functional foods.

• Yogurt as a Probiotic: Yogurt is already a great probiotic without extra stuff added to it.

• Calcium Supplements in Non-Dairy Products: It may come in forms that the body doesn’t absorb as well as it does from dairy products.

• Potassium to Lower Blood Pressure: It’s dangerous to mess around with minerals. Too much potassium can throw off the body’s electrolyte balance.

• Omega-3s for the Heart: Many products are supplemented with a plant form of omega-3 that hasn’t been proven to have the same benefits as the fish form.

• Products Fortified with Fiber: Fiber is good, but lots of products are fortified with inulin fiber, and it isn’t clear if that has the same benefit as fiber from food.

Patterson doesn’t disagree that getting more whole grains in food is good, and fruit and vegetable juices are OK for some of your seven to nine daily servings. However, ask her which functional foods she would consider buying herself, and she is unequivocal. "None of them," she says. "I just wouldn’t fall for that. I try to eat a diet of balanced meals that I prepare myself without using a lot of processed foods."

I decided to call up Dr. Sal Lacagnina, the medical director for Lee Physician Group. I thought perhaps he wouldn’t be as opinionated as Patterson was. I thought wrong. "If you want to use nutrition to stay healthy ... eating natural foods is the best thing you can do," Lacagnina says. "Anything that is processed, you know it’s not going to have the nutrients in there that you need."

Like Patterson, he is suspect of functional foods, saying the research is not there to support the many health claims. "The probiotics in yogurt—it’s very controversial whether the bacteria that is in there actually gets in the gut and does what they are claiming," Lacagnina says.

The good doc follows his own advice about nutrition. He eats lots of fruits and vegetables—blueberries, blackberries, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower. He sticks to lean meats and lots of fish.

"The benefits of the Mediterranean-style diet have been proven to be true," he says. "These people live much longer than anywhere else on the planet. They eat healthier. They walk more and are not sedentary. Those simple things make a big, big difference."

I don’t know about you, but these weren’t the answers I was hoping to hear. I really wanted to find out that these functional foods were really good for me and were making a
difference in my health.

Patterson says I’ve been hooked by good ad men. "It’s marketing," she says. "Just pure and simple awesome marketing. You have to give them credit—they know how to sell a product."

Still, if I’m going to have a glass of O.J., I’ll probably keep drinking the one with the fish oils. If I’m going to have a yogurt, why not stick with one that could help lower my cholesterol?

Barbara Bohl agrees. She’d love to see her young grandchildren loading up on all-natural, unprocessed foods. But in this day and age, that’s not always realistic. "If I can get them to eat the fresh vegetables on their plate, obviously that would be better," she says. "But if they’re not eating them, then I would certainly consider trying some of these products."

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