Intended for healthcare professionals


Health claims for functional foods

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: (Published 22 January 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:180
  1. Martijn B Katan, professor (
  1. Division of Human Nutrition, Wageningen University, Bomenweg 2, 6703 HD Wageningen, Netherlands

    Regulations vary between countries and often permit vague claims

    Functional foods are foods that claim to improve wellbeing or health.1 The health claim may be implicit (“rich in vitamin C”), or vague (“strengthens the body's defence system”), but invariably the product is presented with the suggestion of a benefit. Sales of such products are huge and growing. What ingredients do such foods contain—and who safeguards the truth of claims?

    Many functional foods contain added vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients. Some of these added nutrients indeed promote health: folic acid reduces the risk of neural tube defects, table salt with potassium reduces blood pressure, and polyunsaturated fatty acids reduce the risk of heart disease. But other claims are more dubious—for example, that zinc lozenges protect against colds or that drinks rich in vitamin C protect against cardiovascular disease.

    Functional foods may also contain non-nutritive ingredients. Examples of effective non-nutritive ingredients are sugar alcohols in chewing gum, which reduce risk of dental caries; plant stanols and sterols, which lower low density lipoprotein cholesterol (although effects on heart disease remain to …

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