The healing power of groceries

Combining foods and pharmaceuticals is a booming business riddled with controversial claims

The healing power of groceries

Wu Kaixiang/Zuma Press/Keystone Press/ Matt Rourke/AP

How many hopeful consumers have gulped down sweet beverages like POM Wonderful or Vitaminwater believing they weren’t just quenching their thirst but taking a dose of medicine?

Enough to turn the nutrient-enhanced food and beverage industry into a multi-billion-dollar business. And despite a growing controversy over the claims of certain health foods, there’s no sign the market is slowing. Last week, the global food giant Nestlé SA announced that it’s betting US$510 million on the fact that people will continue to indulge in “pharma foods.” Over the next decade, it plans to invest in a health science business that will create products to treat obesity and a range of chronic ailments, from diabetes to cardiovascular disease.

Recasting Nestlé as a “nutrition, health and wellness company” may be a challenge, considering it has made a fortune peddling chocolate bars and ice cream. So Nestlé Health Science will be a stand-alone operation working at arm’s length from the firm’s other sugar-centred endeavours. It will also incorporate Nestlé’s existing health nutrition business, which makes products like Carnation Instant Breakfast Essentials, and already has annual sales of US$1.7 billion. In addition to foods to treat chronic disease, consumers can also expect products that meet special dietary needs, from high energy snacks for athletes to food for post-op patients.
Nestlé is not the only company blurring the boundaries between food and pharma.

GlaxoSmithKline is emphasizing non-prescription health foods with items like Horlicks, a nutritional drink in powdered form. Other global food companies—General Mills, Kraft, Unilever—have also been challenging the drug industry with their offerings, while Nestlé’s rival Danone markets its Activia yogourt as a means to improve digestion.

Stuart Phillips, who researches functional foods at McMaster University, says the time may be right for food companies to enter this market. “In the last century, we’ve seen a complete shift from the number one killer for Canadians and North Americans being infectious diseases to, now, chronic diseases. And you can’t treat these diseases with pharmaceuticals alone.” Along with exercise, diet is key. Whether or not pharma foods alleviate the burden of chronic disease on the health care systems, Phillips says, “I don’t see this initiative as having a downside, other than you may have to pay more for some of these products.”

But the path to riches by way of enriched foods won’t be an easy one. In recent months, consumer groups and regulators in the U.S. have been pressuring a number of companies to stop making false or unsubstantiated health claims when marketing their food. Kellogg Co. was required to retract statements that its Rice Krispies cereal improved children’s immunity and that its Frosted Mini-Wheats cereal was “clinically shown to improve kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20 per cent.” Ben & Jerry’s recently agreed to drop its “all natural” slogan because—according to the nutrition and food safety watchdog group the Center for Science in the Public Interest—about 48 of their products aren’t. The same group has a lawsuit against Coke over Vitamin­water, which contains 33 grams of sugar per bottle (similar to a can of soda). The Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, warned the makers of Canada Dry ginger ale and Lipton tea to stop making health claims regarding their green tea beverages. And the Federal Trade Commission recently filed a complaint against POM Wonderful for “false and unsubstantiated claims” that its pomegranate juice can prevent or treat heart disease and erectile dysfunction. Though POM has spent more than US$34 million to fund pomegranate-based scientific research, the FTC said there’s a dearth of evidence to back the company’s claims.

Nestlé was also recently scrutinized by the FTC for its Boost Kid Essentials drink, which was marketed as being able to protect children from colds and flu and keep them from missing school. Going forward, Nestlé has said that the products it develops will offer more than empty promises about health. It’s even created the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences, which will work with the research university École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. If the Swiss company can successfully bridge the gap between food and pharma, who knows, maybe one day a cure for obesity will come in the form of a chocolate bar.

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