Executive Summary     
About the IACFO
Executive Summary

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News Release - March 25, 1999
International Release - March 26, 1999

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About the IACFO

The International Association of Consumer Food Organizations (IACFO) is an international association of non-governmental organizations that represent consumer interests in the areas of food safety and nutrition policy. IACFO was formed in 1997 in recognition of the growth in the international food trade and the globalization of the food industry. The founding members are the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Japan Offspring Fund, and the Food Commission UK. IACFO has been recognized as an official observer by the United Nations Codex Alimentarius Commission. All members of IACFO are independently funded and do not accept funding from the food industry. IACFO is incorporated in accordance with the laws of the District of Columbia, USA.

Center for Science in the Public Interest

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a non-profit consumer organization with offices in the United States and Canada, was formed in 1971. CSPI's twin missions are to conduct innovative research and advocacy programs in the areas of health and nutrition and to provide consumers with current, useful information about their own health and well-being. CSPI is supported by the more than 900,000 subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter.

The Japan Offspring Fund

The Japan Offspring Fund (JOF) is a non-profit organization devoted to research and education on matters involving the safety of daily life, including chemical residues in foods and food-related diseases. JOF is supported by more than 5,000 members in Japan and publishes a newsletter, Safety of Our Food and Life in Japanese and English.

The Food Commission UK

The Food Commission, a non-profit public interest organization with offices in the United Kingdom, was formed in 1989. The Food Commission aims to promote public health and education through research and publication activities in the areas of food production, distribution, consumption and nutrition. The Food Commission relies primarily on funds raised through the 10,000 readers of its journal, The Food Magazine.

Executive Summary

Food processors are increasingly marketing so-called functional foods, i.e., foods with ingredients that claim to provide a health benefit to consumers beyond the nutritional benefits ordinarily provided by the foods themselves. They include, for example, foods that claim to help reduce cholesterol or improve concentration and range from breakfast cereals with psyllium to snack bars with amino acids.

There is no question that certain substances that occur naturally, or that are added to foods, may offer particular health benefits. However, research in this area is still in its infancy, and scientifically valid health claims cannot yet be made with regard to many ingredients.

Will consumers benefit from the development of functional foods? That depends. Some products provide significant health benefits, and it makes sense to foster their development, marketing, and consumption. On the other hand, the absence of convincing scientific research and inadequate regulatory controls may result in a marketplace flooded with exaggerated claims and products of dubious benefit.

This report examines the current regulation and marketing of functional foods in Japan, the United States (U.S.), and the United Kingdom (UK), three of the largest markets for such products. The approaches taken by government and industry differ in each of those countries (see Table 1) but share one common element — all seem to be failing to protect consumers from dubious health claims and poorly tested ingredients.

This report recommends that:

  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — require that functional ingredients be proven safe and that label claims be approved by the agency prior to marketing; prevent companies from selling “functional foods” as dietary supplements or “medical foods” to escape FDA regulations for food products; work with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to develop a consistent policy for claims in advertising and labeling; and require that labels list the amount of functional ingredients contained in a serving and, if appropriate, recommended usage or warning information.
  • The Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare — expand its system for approving Foods for Specified Health Use (FOSHU) to cover all health foods marketed with “functional” ingredients; raise standards for FOSHU approvals; limit the role of the Japan Health Food & Nutrition Food Association in the FOSHU approval process; and prohibit FOSHU approval for candies and other foods with low nutritional value.
  • The UK government — support the issuance of a directive by the European Union (EU) establishing requirements for pre-market approval of functional foods and requiring nutrition labeling of all foods; empower the forthcoming Food Standards Agency to implement the directive in the UK; and issue specific regulations for functional foods based on provisions of a voluntary code developed by the Joint Health Claims Initiative (a partnership formed by food companies, consumer groups, and local trading standard authorities).

The food industry is calling on government authorities to limit regulation of functional foods. Yet, if the full health potential of functional foods is to be realized, governments must ensure that functional ingredients are safe, that labeling and advertising claims are adequately substantiated, and that ingredients are not added to foods high in fat, cholesterol, sodium, or sugar. After consultation with all stakeholders, governments should establish adequate regulatory controls to achieve those objectives. If such steps are not taken, many functional foods may amount to little more than 21st Century quackery.

This report was prepared by Ilene Ringel Heller (CSPI), Yoko Taniguchi (JOF) and Tim Lobstein (Food Commission UK). The report was edited by Bruce Silverglade and Michael Jacobson. A special thank you goes to Jack Winkler, Director of Food & Health Research (UK).

Copyright © 1999 by the International Association of Consumer Food Organizations