Can junk food be healthier?

The evolving world of processed food

May 20, 2011

The “functional foods” buzz started humming a few years ago, when foods such as cherries and pomegranates began to be labeled “superfoods.” Depending on the foodstuff, so the marketing went, you could improve your digestion, stave off cancer, or just plain feel good.

Of course, marketing a processed food is much more profitable than marketing fresh whole foods, so Big Food jumped on the superfood bandwagon. As Natasha Singer reported recently in the New York Times, many of these products are just junk tricked out with seductive labels, and regulators are cracking down:

But as sales soar, federal regulators worry that some packaged foods that scream healthy on their labels are in fact no healthier than many ordinary brands. Federal Trade Commission officials have been cracking down on products that, in their view, make dubious or exaggerated claims. Overwhelmed regulators concede that they are struggling to police this booming market, despite recent settlements with makers of brands like Kellogg’s Rice Krispies and Dannon’s Activia, which the authorities say oversold their health benefits.

Even companies famous for their junk products are trying to get in on the health action, as John Seabrook revealed in a recent New Yorker profile of PepsiCo. In recent years, the company has spent much time, energy, and dollars on developing snacks and beverages that are moderately nutritious, or at least less bad for you. It’s all part of the company’s strategy for staying in business:

Americans consume about 50 gallons of soda a year, more than four times the average per-capita consumption 60 years ago. Americans also ingest about 3,400 milligrans of sodium per day, twice the recommended amount; sodium has long been linked to high blood pressure. And the oils and fats used in some fried potato and corn chips elevate cholesterol and can cause heart disease. In other words, that great taste promised by PepsiCo’s brands, which relies heavily on sugar, salt, and fat, appears to be making some people sick, and its most devoted fans, the “heavy users,” as they’re known in the food industry, could be among the worst afflicted. Cutting short the lives of your best customers isn’t much of a strategy for long-term success.

Superjunkfoods: the wave of the future.

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