Functional Foods: Risks and Side Effects? Ask the Check-Out Girl!

These days, being ill is frowned upon. Fit, happy, wrinkle-free is the mantra, so we make every effort to stay healthy. If only we had more time! Well, not to worry: all the things that are good for us can easily be found on a supermarket shelf – with vitamins in your yoghurt drink and folic acid in your granola bar…

The doctor had confirmed it: his values were as good as an infant’s, his cholesterol level was great. That was just a few weeks before it happened. For some reason, he had always been concerned about his heart, so he took great pains to follow a good diet. His wife had done the same. Together they followed the official advice: less meat, preferably fish. The occasional glass of wine, plenty of cottage cheese – always the low-fat products, mind, because of the cholesterol. Fewer sweet treats, lots of salad and fruit. And always pick margarine – the good sort; the sort that protects the heart. Because he had indeed always worried a little about his heart. Just to be on the safe side, he also went for regular check-ups at the doctor’s. Everything was always in the green: he wasn’t overweight, he didn’t have high blood pressure… He couldn’t hope for better.

Yet more and more often he started getting short of breath as soon as he had to walk up even a small hill. The doctor sent him to hospital, and there it was: operate immediately or risk early death. It was his heart: two coronary valves were totally calcified. The operation went smoothly; he recovered quickly and without pain. The heart-protecting margarine, however, soon came to an ignominious end in the rubbish bin after a phone call with Dr Oliver Weingärtner, a cardiologist at Saarland University in Homburg, Germany. Weingärtner wanted to find out whether the very additives in margarine that are supposed to protect the heart could actually be having the opposite effect. The doctor asked his patient, still recovering from surgery, to participate in a study on the subject. That was the moment the margarine landed in the bin.

unhealthy ingredients

Breakfast cereals are no longer what they used to be: the food and pharmaceutical corporations are joining forces. The ingredients with which they ‘optimise’ our food are not always a blessing for the body.

The additives in margarine – so-called plant sterols – are supposed to reduce cholesterol levels and thus prevent cardiovascular diseases. Plant sterols are the cholesterol of plants, so to speak. They occur naturally in vegetables, olive oil, nuts, and fruit, and in a balanced diet we consume around 200 to 400 milligrams per day. By significantly increasing our intake of plant sterols, cholesterol levels can be reduced by ten to fifteen per cent. In this respect at least, the manufacturers’ promises are true. Incidentally, they recommend an intake of two grams of plant sterols per day – if we wanted to obtain this amount through food, we would have to eat 150 apples, 210 carrots, 425 tomatoes or eleven cups of peanuts! Something else that remained unmentioned, but has been proven through various studies, is that these plant sterols can also lead to a hardening of the blood vessels, and accumulate in the heart valves – to a potentially fatal extent. The valves usually have to be replaced! Following this kind of operation, the risk of a stroke rises over subsequent years, which is exactly what happened to the health-conscious gentleman above. A few years after he had been given artificial valves, he suffered a massive stroke and passed away around 24 hours later. Whether it was his decades-long consumption of margarine that sent him to an early grave, (even though he had done all the right things and believed all the authorities, doctors and adverts), of course cannot be proven.

The fact that spreads such as Benecol, Flora and others can be harmful is very well known to the EU authorities responsible. They raise corresponding red flags on the products: limit consumption to a maximum of three grams per day. Those taking cholesterol-reducing products should consult a doctor before consuming these products. They are not suitable for pregnant women, breast­­feeding mothers, and children under the age of five. (Yes, that’s right, we’re still talking about a ‘food’ here, not a medicine.) Unfortunately, few people bother to read these warnings. Surveys have shown that only just under half of consumers actually suffer from a raised cholesterol level. Around 36 per cent of them also have partners eating the same foods who don’t have an increased cholesterol level! Others buy these products because of the taste, because of the advertising, or simply to balance out an unhealthy lifestyle. In 29 per cent of households, these products are also consumed by children. You can therefore safely say that millions of people are putting their health at risk by consuming these supposedly healthy foods.

Plenty Left in the Pot

The example of the heart-protecting margarine is only the tip of the iceberg. Put it to the test, and on your next visit to the supermarket take a look at how many ‘normal’ products are plastered with phrases such as “plus 10 vitamins”, “with folic acid and iron”, “added vitamin C and A”, “12 vitamins and minerals”, etc. And then just look at advertising slogans such as “strengthens immune defence”, “good for digestion” or “an extra bit of energy”. This game is particularly fun in the baby food aisle…

An average breakfast may look like this: Kellogg’s cornflakes with a probiotic yoghurt by Nestlé, a glass of multi-vitamin juice with high vitamin C, a glass of milk with Nesquik or Ovaltine, and maybe some toast spread with Flora pro.activ… All these foodstuffs are in some way enriched with vitamins, bacteria cultures, minerals, etc. It’s impossible to calculate how much of these mostly artificial substances (of course, we are talking about the average, healthy person who has no additional requirements) are consumed throughout the day. People hardly stop to think about whether our body can cope with this uncontrolled flood of industrial additives. These are products that you will find in any kitchen.

The fact that these products don’t exactly spring from a humanitarian commitment from the food corporations is also often forgotten. In terms of foods with added value - functional food – it’s more about milking one of the last growth sectors in the saturated food markets of Western industrial nations. In Germany alone, more than three billion euros are spent every year on food with supposed health benefits!

Nestlé, for example, was able to increase the turnover of its functional foods division by more than 23 per cent annually between 2004 and 2007. In contrast, ‘normal’ foods saw a turnover of just 6.2 per cent. Former Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck saw the corporation positioned as a pioneer “of a totally new industry midway between food and pharma­ceuticals”, there to “prevent and treat acute and chronic diseases of the 21st century.” That’s right, we’re still talking about foodstuffs…

Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth

To use a hackneyed cliché: it all used to be so much simpler. It was easier to determine where foods came from – usually from local farmers, the garden, or the forest, meadows, streams and rivers. In particular, it was also quite clear who took care of preparing meals and who decided what was healthy: housewives, cooks, and doctors. Now, there are all sorts of other players entering the big business of health food, namely chemists, analysts, investors, business consultants, lawyers… They act according to very different criteria, mainly monetary. It’s clear that supplying customers with high-quality, healthy food at fair prices is not the priority – you can’t make big bucks with apples and courgettes. Plus, the stuff goes off too quickly, making shelf life all the more important.

This means that products are not made according to people’s requirements, but are rather oriented primarily towards industry requirements. And it’s the food industry that takes the liberty of e­plaining to people what their requirements actually are in the first place.

In the early 1930s, for example, consumers had no idea that they weren’t getting enough vitamin C. Only when the marketing department at Roche invented a new health disorder − a ‘deficiency’ of vitamins − did public ‘awareness’ dawn. In fact, Swiss historian Beat Bächi was able to prove by means of internal documents obtained from Roche that the vitamin C requirement was an artificial invention. In 1933, Polish-born chemist Tadeusz Reichstein succeeded in manufacturing vitamin C artificially, and tried to sell the patents for his invention to Roche. But the pharmaceutical giant rejected the offer because adults could easily cover their vitamin C requirement with fruit and vegetables. And, moreover, there was no disease – apart from scurvy – that could be treated with vitamin C. However, Roche soon discovered that plenty of profit was to be made from artificial vitamin C, provided that they could convince consumers that they were getting too little of it. “The task was: use propaganda (which is aimed at the intellect, and establishes the concept of self-preservation as an agent via said intellect) to create a requirement.” Roche therefore launched an “infor­mation campaign to hammer home the term ‘vitamin C deficiency’ among doctors.” In this, doctors were asked to draw up positive reports, because physicians were needed to “attribute outwardly healthy patients with a new illness”.

It was about “making something palatable to the consumer in which the corporation had an interest.” If you want to believe that these kinds of “slip-ups” only happened in 20th century marketing departments, go ahead. Incidentally, science is to date unable to agree on how much vitamin C we actually need. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends 45 milligrams per day; Germany, Austria and Switzerland say 100; the USA advises between 75 and 90; while the UK recommends just under 40. It certainly is a riddle…