Omegas, Fiber, Gluten-Free, Probiotic: Some Health Claims Sell Big

Sales are up, but be sure to treat “functional” foods with healthy skepticism.

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Despite the recession, spending on foods featuring health claims was up last year, according to data from Nielsen Wire. Many of these products are so-called functional foods, offering a specific health benefit beyond basic nutrition. That benefit can occur naturally—think of the antioxidants in fruit—or it can be added to otherwise nutritionally vacant foods by processing, as with VitaminWater.

[Read more about VitaminWater's health claims.]

But as I wrote last year, you should be cautious when faced with a label making a health or wellness claim. If a food isn't already healthful before extra nutrients are added, there's no reason to buy it. For example, an energy bar may claim to have a lot of fiber, but if it's otherwise a sugar and fat bomb, why bother? [Here's a guide to fiber sources—soluble, insoluble and beyond.] According to Nielsen, sales of foods making a fiber claim rose 13 percent last year.

And you should consider your diet and the supplements you're already taking. If you're eating a lot of fish or taking fish-oil supplements, orange juice spiked with omega-3 may not be necessary or desirable. Sales of foods making claims about omega fatty acids rose 42 percent last year, according to Nielsen, the most of all the health claims they surveyed.

[Read about the right way to get your omega-3s and omega-6s.]

Some other health claim winners last year: antioxidant (sales rose 29 percent), gluten-free (up 16 percent), probiotic (up 13 percent), and low-glycemic (up 12 percent). Sales were weaker for claims about low-cholesterol, low-carbohydrate, and soy-containing foods.

What health claim would make you pick up a package in the supermarket?