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The Daily Tar Heel

Toward a Jetsons’ world of nutrition

The creators of “The Jetsons” were geniuses. Foreseeing the trend of a health-obsessed population on the run, they created a technologically advanced utopia where people ate three course meals in pill form.

Starry-eyed kids fantasized of a future filled with painless capsule-sized portions of broccoli and green beans. Companies of today have gone a step farther by making delicious, vitamin-enhanced foods that aim to prevent or treat disease — the aptly named nutraceuticals.

It is terrific that manufacturers are striving to produce healthier foods, but these products’ advertised benefits must be taken with a grain of salt. Consumers might be tempted to use vitamin-enhanced snacks to justify eating KFC and avoiding exercise.

If this became a trend, nutraceuticals could actually push America further down the road of fat butts and heart disease.

Nutraceuticals have been around for ages and can play an important role in public health. Vitamin D-fortified milk and iodized salt have prevented countless cases of rickets and thyroid deficiency in the U.S.

Due to blossoming numbers of health-conscious consumers, the nutraceutical sector’s growth has easily outpaced the rest of the food industry.

But success has attracted charlatans. For instance, the Kellogg Company advertised Frosted Mini-Wheats as a breakfast food “clinically shown to improve kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20 percent.”

The Federal Trade Commission punished the company, noting that the clinical study cited by Kellogg compared kids eating Mini-Wheats to peers who ate no breakfast at all. Even worse, the average difference in attentiveness between the children who ate the cereal and the starved group was just less than 11 percent, and only about half of the breakfast eaters showed any improvement at all.

In light of irresponsible food marketing, the Food and Drug Administration has unveiled plans to monitor health claims made on product packaging.

Oversight is badly needed but will not solve the problem.

Vitaminwater will probably continue to masquerade as a health drink despite packing more sugar than a 12 ounce Coke, and potato chip makers might still slap “No trans fats” labels on products containing unhealthy saturated fats.

In addition, questionable scientific claims about Echinacea for colds, ketchup for prostate cancer and green tea for heart disease will continue to be spread by anyone who is out to make a buck.

This might seem unscrupulous, but a switch in teen preferences from soda to green tea, for whatever reason, would be a good thing.

Plus, companies are working on tasty forms of substances with stronger scientific backing for their proposed benefits like EPA and DHA omega-3 acids.

Just remember that no product can replace fruits and veggies as part of a balanced diet and regular exercise. And no matter how good a health food might sound, remember the wise proverb: Even an antidote becomes a poison at a high enough dose.

So if you think twice before chugging a few gallons of water, definitely take pause before wolfing down a family-size bag of vitamin-enhanced gummy bears.

Andrew Moon is a second-year student in the School of Medicine. Contact Andrew at andrew_moon@med.unc.edu. 
 

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