4. As with everything else, realize that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Would you believe that Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal has been "clinically shown to improve kids' attentiveness by nearly 20 percent"? Kellogg Co. recently agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that those ad claims were false and broke the law. As it turns out, according to the study used to support that claim, only about half the kids who ate the cereal for breakfast showed any improvement in attentiveness, and only about 1 in 9 improved by at least 20 percent, the FTC said. There are plenty of misleading ads out there. Caveat emptor, especially with health claims for food.
5. Be prepared to drop something else from your diet. There is no magic bullet that will compensate for otherwise unhealthy eating habits; simply adding something to your diet isn't necessarily helpful unless you also subtract something. The limited health claims permitted for olive oil, for example, do not mean you can simply add it to your diet on top of everything else you eat; it has to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the number of calories you eat in a day. So tossing a handful of walnuts on a hot fudge sundae is not going to compensate for the sundae, says Alice Lichtenstein, a nutritional biochemist at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. (Sorry.)
6. Look at what else is in there. Juicy Juice now has special varieties that are touted as promoting "brain development" (with DHA, from omega-3 fatty acids) and "immunity" (with vitamin C, zinc, and prebiotic fiber) in small kids. Sounds great . . . except that the juice is still more than 75 percent sugar. And the American Academy of Pediatrics has said that instead of juice, children should be encouraged to eat fiber-rich whole fruits and that kids under 6 months shouldn't get juice at all.
The biggest trap in functional-food shopping is buying something that seems healthful but really isn't. Energy and breakfast bars, for example, make all kinds of claims about the added fiber but don't tout the fact that they often get more than half their calories from fat and sugar. That's why New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle calls them "vitamin-supplemented, fiber-supplemented cookie bars." Or what about eating chocolate to help your heart? As the Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter has pointed out, CocaVia Heart Healthy chocolate bars do contain certain chemicals—cocoa flavanols and canola sterol esters—that may benefit your cardiovascular system. But each small candy bar has 100 calories and gets 60 of those calories from fat and 36 from sugar. Be sure to read the nutrition label on the back of the package, not just the claims on the front. (Here are 8 fixes nutritionists would like to see on food labels.) Bottom line: A functional food should be healthful before extra nutrients are added, says Barkoukis. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy chocolate, but don't think it's been transformed into a health food.
7. Consider your diet and supplements. Many of the nutrients that may attract people to functional foods are prevalent in whole foods that are easy to get and that, in fact, they may already be eating. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and plant sources are added to Tropicana Healthy Heart orange juice, for example. "At our house, we eat fish three times a week, so we don't buy it," says Christine Gerbstadt, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. On the other hand, someone who hates fish and doesn't eat a lot of plant sources of omega-3s may opt for fortified OJ, she says. And some nutrients are particularly tough to get from food alone (vitamin D is an example). That's why it's added to foods, including milk, some kinds of OJ, and margarine.