June 2, 2011

Functional Food Labeling

Functional food is big business these days.  Think about the last time you walked through a supermarket.  You likely saw cereal that claimed to be good for your heart and juice that said it was full of antioxidents good for fighting free radicals.  Even ads on tv claim that certain foods and certain brands can make you a healthier person.   Before I get too far into the labeling requirements of functional foods, I want to make it clear that I don’t endorse this type of marketing.  Unless you can clearly and scientifically show a link between what you’re making and how it will make someone healthier I think there are far better ways to market a product.

But should you want to start marketing functional claims about your food product, know that the FDA requires that there be scientific data backing up  your claim.  However, what many of the big food companies do is create a loose correlation between their product and an ingredient that has a known benefit.  As this article in the New York Times pointed out two weeks ago, Quaker Oatmeal Squares claims to lower cholesterol.  They don’t say that their cereal lowers cholesterol, just that oatmeal does and they leave it to the consumer to make the connection between oatmeal, their product, and a healthier life. (The New York Times then goes on to point out that Quaker Oatmeal Squares do not contain nearly enough oatmeal to have any heart-healthy benefits unless someone were to eat three bowls of it daily). 

Legally what their claiming is not false but I’d argue that many functional foods are marketed in such a way as to mislead consumers.  On the flip side, as a small food producer, one of your greatest strengths may lie in the fact that your product is likely not as processed or manipulated as the Big Brands.   You could honestly tell someone that your popsicles are made with 100% real fruit and no added sugar and allow the consumers to decide whether they want an all-natural popsicle or one laden with high-fructose corn syrup that ‘claims’ to have functional benefits.  As I’ve mentioned time and time again, consumers are getting smarter by the day and are taking a much closer look at labels and want to understand what’s in the food their eating.  While legally you might be able to put a giant heart on your popsicle packaging and market it as heart-healthy the strongest marketing benefit of your product may be how you make your food (and how that’s different from Big Brands) or the ingredients you use (and how that’s different from Big Brands).