Wellness" and "functional foods" are modern marketing buzz terms, but their dietary roots run deep in American food processing. Grape Nuts, in the early 1900s, informed buyers that the cereal would repair brain cells, cure malaria and prevent appendicitis. Yeast cakes allegedly cleared your acne and helped ward off "fallen stomach." Vitamin B-2, found in white bread, was said to boost morale among teens. There even was a candy bar called the Perfect Bar, a confection combining "dehydrated vegetables rich in vitamins and bran," to prevent constipation.
And then, many decades and many health claims later, there was lycopene, an antioxidant found naturally in tomatoes, whose immunizing powers were said to have included a level of protection against prostate cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in autumn 2005, ruled that food-makers could claim on their packaging that tomato products have the potential to reduce cancer risk -- so long as the assertion was qualified by a side warning saying there is little scientific evidence supporting the claim.
That was mixed news for H.J. Heinz Co., which had appealed for FDA permission to make the link between lycopene and prostate cancer on its product packaging.
Heinz had been touting the benefits of lycopene for years, saying that a "tomato-rich diet may lower the risk of prostate cancer and certain chronic ailments, including heart disease and other cancers," reduce cholesterol and fight osteoporosis to boot. In 1998, it began running ads making those claims in USA Today and other publications. It financed University of Toronto studies into the health effects of lycopene. It even published cookbooks, urging bakers to incorporate ketchup into their cookie and apple pie recipes.
But last week, the FDA announced that food makers should limit claims that tomatoes and lycopene can forestall cancers. The FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in an article published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, reiterated that there was no credible evidence linking lycopene, a pigment that gives tomatoes and watermelon flesh their red coloring, to the prevention of lung, rectal, breast or uterine cancers. And there is "very limited evidence" tomatoes cut the risk of prostate cancer.
It was, Heinz says, largely a rehashing of the evidence that led the FDA to allow the "qualified health claim" in 2005. "We don't see what the news is," said Michael Mullen, Heinz spokesman. (A massive study published in May, however, does provide some new details -- the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the National Cancer Institute jointly wrote that the prostate cancer claim seems especially dubious, refuting the protective benefit claimed of lycopene in a 2002 Harvard study.)
Rather than clarify what lycopene can and cannot do for human health, last week's announcement instead provides a window into the marketing of food products with healthful side effects -- and the hazards of building a product or an ad campaign around those effects.
Certainly the success or failure of a marketing campaign built around lycopene means little to Heinz, whose ketchup dominance seems assured whether or not lycopene prevents prostate cancer.
"We never used the health claim on any of the products we make," noted Ida Laquatra, director of nutrition at Heinz.
No, there was no claim of lycopene's preventative powers on the bottle. Instead, the bottle of ketchup merely mentioned the presence of lycopene, alluding to its status as an antioxidant, without suggesting what exactly antioxidants or lycopene do:
"Lycopene is another great reason to love Heinz Ketchup! Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant and is found naturally in Heinz Ketchup and other processed tomato products. Visit www.lycopene.org for more information on the latest research."
The lycopene.org Web site is owned by Heinz. There, the company lays out the case for the antioxidant, citing scientific abstracts, asking "Will Tomatoes Prevent Osteoporosis?" Another notes a link between lycopene and improved male fertility.
They can point to such evidence on the Internet, but not on the packaging, because different rules apply to different methods of communication.
What appears on the packaging is regulated by the FDA. Claims made for products advertised on television are vetted by the Federal Trade Commission. The Internet is a Wild West shootout. And books, pamphlets and other written materials are protected by the First Amendment -- it's the reason a late-night pitchman such as Kevin Trudeau can no longer sell his "curative" products on TV, but can write a best-selling book called "Natural Cures 'They' Don't Want You to Know About."
Meanwhile, lycopene research continues to be funded by Heinz.
Part of getting consumers to make the connection between a nutrient and its supposed effect is methodical repetition -- awareness before demand. A decade ago, nobody knew what lycopene was. Now, multivitamin bottles announce "now with lycopene!"
That's in no small part because of Heinz's research. But did getting customers to arrive at that association between tomatoes and lycopene do much for Heinz? And if not, what was the point?
Research "moves our understanding of nutrition forward," said Ms. Laquatra. "Consumers are interested in the benefits of certain foods .... [They] know some buzzwords, and they know some things are good for them," even if they aren't precisely sure why the foods are good.
That's why the marketing of "functional foods" and other healthful foods is, at best, an inexact art. In that way, it's not so far removed from the early days of Grape Nuts -- sometimes the marketing team gets out in front of the science, and sometimes the best science of the day later turns out to be wrong. (The claims made by Grape Nuts and other breakfast cereals in the early 20th century, for instance, were based partly on research done at Dr. John Harvey Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium.)
But "the bottom line for the success of these things is that it's got to make sense to the consumer," said Blaine Becker, communications director for The Hartman Group, of Seattle, a marketing agency. The health market "seems on paper to hold a lot of promise." But some "functional" claims just don't resonate.
"I don't buy Diet Coke because it has vitamins and minerals," Mr. Becker said, citing Diet Coke Plus, one of many incongruent products on shelves these days.
"Sometimes marketing is trying to take advantage without a true understanding of what is driving consumer behavior."
The most recent studies have shown that shoppers seem to be more interested in "food-minus" products than those that tell the presence of a healthful additive. The Global New Products Database, which tracks food and drink popularity, said foods advertising reduced fat, trans-fat, calories and cholesterol register with consumers.
Foods claiming nutritional fortifiers or ingredients -- "food-plus" -- didn't fare as well. That's a signal that buyers seem to recognize what's bad for them more than they understand what's good for them. They also are skeptical that what's said to be beneficial won't have the proposed effect.
The Mintel International Group, the marketing research firm that compiles the global products database, said skepticism among consumers would present obstacles to marketers and food manufacturers.
Claims of health effects "confuse shoppers as well as enlighten them," and no wonder. Here's the FDA-endorsed statement on lycopene: "Very limited and preliminary scientific research suggests that eating one-half to one cup of tomatoes and/or tomato sauce a week may reduce the risk of prostate cancer." The clunky language, and dubious payoff, means few companies have bothered to seek permission to advertise FDA-vetted health benefits on food packaging.
Overall, though, sales of "functional foods" have been flat since 2003. Offerings from 7UP, Kellogg, and scores more have been met by tepid consumer response.Click photo for larger image.
Bill Toland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625.