Functional foods are generally defined as products imbued with additional nutrients with health-promoting properties. But the industry needs to be wary of foods that present no actual health benefit from piggy-backing on the popularity of the category and watering down its reputation.
According to press reports last week, Japan's Eiwa Confectionery is seeking to enter the UK market with its collagen marshmallows. The sweets, which come in blueberry, cherry or grapefruit flavour, each contain 300mg of collagen and are marketed in their homeland as an alternative to collagen injections to plump out the lips and cheeks.
Such innovative productions are sure to grab headlines, but they are often bundled together in the mainstream media under the umbrella of functional foods or nutraceuticals.
Sure, they are functional in the sense that they do something for the consumer beyond what a regular marshmallow would do. But where is the health benefit in having plumper cheeks and lips?
An article published in The Scotsman this week classed Eiwa's marshmallows alongside cholesterol-lowering margarines and yoghurts and anti-ageing supplements.
But these are not the same thing at all.
Margarines containing plant sterols and omega-3 enriched eggs are designed to have a positive effect on health, and may ultimately reduce the risk of heart disease and other life-threatening diseases. Likewise some sports products are intended to replace minerals lost during exercise, thus helping the body retain optimal nutrient levels.
Eiwa's marshmallows, on the other hand, are cosmetic confectionery, serving no higher purpose than to make the user look and feel pretty. The nutra suffix is entirely unmerited.
The beauty-from-within category is growing apace, with Datamonitor predicting the European market to be worth US$4.4 bn (c €3.5 bn) in 2009, five per cent more than today. Stateside they had their first first ever dedicated trade show Inside Beauty, as part of Health and Beauty America.
But there needs to be a distinction between products that give users a radiant, youthful glow as a consequence of healthy internal action from antioxidants or other ingredients, and those that have no primary healthy purpose at all.
It's a tricky call to make, but one that should be predicated on mechanism of action.
For instance, last year Microfluid Biotechnology introduced a bronzing water drink in France called L'eau Bronzante. The product claims to tan the skin if a 500ml bottle is drunk every day for nine days. But the effect is down to the protective effects of the nutrients contained within it, including aloe vera extracts, vitamin C, beta carotene and lycopene, against UVA rays.
Collagen is an important structural protein. But its face-pumping properties are not a direct result of its bolstering connective tissue and helping with arthritis; although Eiwa's marshmallows could perhaps one day be shown to help joint health too, that is not what they are marketed for just now.
I would not wish to dismiss collagen marshmallows out of hand. If Eiwa's executives have identified a gap in the market then all power to them. But the product should not be ranked alongside foods that can help save lives by virtue of being ingested rather then merely smeared on the lips.
Its rightful place is alongside lip-plumping lipsticks and skin creams, otherwise known as cosmeceuticals.
A clear line needs to be drawn between whacky, novelty concepts that cater solely to consumer vanity and foods that could actually make a real difference to public health.
Unless this happens now, while definitions are still relatively fluid, they could end up causing an unsightly blemish on the face of the functional foods category.
Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website NutraIngredients.com and NutraIngredients-USA.com. Over the past decade she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States.
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