Columbia firm to add nutrition to nacho sauce

The Baltimore Sun

Healthy nachos?

It may seem an oxymoron, but that's the goal of Columbia's Martek Biosciences, which yesterday said it will begin adding a nutritional supplement to a new cheese sauce that is made by a Texas company and marketed to schools nationwide.

It is a pairing that Martek executives hope parents will embrace after years of trying to force-feed their finicky children nutritional foods. But it is unlikely to satisfy medical experts, who bemoan the childhood obesity problem that is growing along with kids' waistlines.

"It's like putting an antibiotic on a candy or putting vitamins in a soft drink that is sugary water," said Dr. Benjamin Caballero, a pediatrician and nutrition professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"That's my concern. It's much more difficult to get children and adults to consume healthy food if we tell them that you can have your cake and eat it too -- and it has vitamins in it."

The substance being added to the cheese is a long-chain, omega-3 fatty acid known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). It is typically found in fish and human breast milk.

Martek's vegetarian version, called life'sDHA, is made from algae and already added to infant formula, nutrition bars for pregnant women, yogurt, soy milk and certain hamburger sold in the Netherlands.

Some studies have suggested DHA may aid in baby brain and eye development and reduce the risk of coronary heart disease in adults, though the evidence is not conclusive, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"There's always somebody who says we need one more study, but if you look at the totality of the evidence, it's hard to conclude that you wouldn't want more DHA," said Joe Buron, Martek's vice president of sales and marketing.

In the deal announced yesterday, Ricos Products of San Antonio is adding Martek's life'sDHA to large cans of a cheese sauce that is also fortified with calcium and iron, and free of trans fat, saturated fat, gluten and cholesterol. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

"If schools are going to buy [cheese sauce] anyway and make it available for kids for nachos and mac and cheese and pizza and cheese fries, this is a good alternative," Buron said.

Ricos, whose Web site claims it pioneered the idea of selling nachos at concession stands in 1977, did not return a call for comment yesterday.

Efforts to revamp school menus have increased in recent years, as nutritionists have labeled rising childhood obesity "an epidemic."

Nearly 1 in 5 children is overweight, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Childhood obesity rates have tripled in the past two decades and just 2 percent of kids eat a healthy diet, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington nutrition advocacy group. The center has threatened to sue soft drink companies if they did not remove high-calorie sodas from schools.

In a report last year ranking states according to their school food policies, the center gave Maryland a D+, putting it in 22nd place. The state has guidelines banning certain high-fat, high-sugar a la carte items in school cafeterias. Some Maryland schools sell nachos.

"In any growing child, DHA is critical for normal brain development," said Dr. Daniel Levy, an Owings Mills pediatrician and president of the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"If children eat a healthy and balanced diet, it's found in ample quantities in food. The problem is you never know how kids are going to eat."

Though a fan of DHA in infant formula, Levy said he is not sold on the idea of adding nutrients to foods in general, and warns that consumers should be wary of health claims.

"With respect to food and food additives, the same stringent requirements that are there for drugs are not there for food. Nutritional supplements are not subject to the same research that say an antibiotic or prescription medication might be subject to," Levy said.

David Webber, a biotechnology analyst who follows Martek for First Albany Capital, said he is no expert in children's cheese sauces. But he saw the deal as an opportunity for Martek to further penetrate the food industry.

Martek's stock closed down 39 cents, or nearly 1.5 percent, yesterday to $26.14 on the Nasdaq.

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