Walking around the grocery store these days, it might seem possible to get a full plate of nutrition from boxes and jars in the snack aisle.
Milk now comes in cereal bars, whole grains are baked into cookies, vegetables are fried into chips and vitamins are infused in soda.
Recently, fat-free and low-carb were trends. Now, dietitians and consumers' groups say they are spotting the next wave of new products in the $440 billion retail food industry: so-called functional foods, or snacks and beverages that have something extra that makes them seem healthier.
But observers say that in many cases the products enriched with vitamins, vegetables, grains or omega-3 fatty acids do not amount to much. Sometimes they also contain a lot of sugar, salt or fat. And people shouldn't begin eating them for dietary reasons, health experts say.
"This is clearly helping companies sell more products, but it's really not a substitution for the real thing," said Jayne Hurley, a registered dietitian and senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"If you need to eat a carrot, eat a carrot and not a veggie chip," she said. "Junk food with vitamins added is still junk food."
Hurley said they aren't "organic" or "natural" foods, which have their own confusing label issues. They are a newer category - and they're not all bad, she and others say. It's just not always easy to tell the good from the not-as-good or useless.
Food companies say they are not encouraging people to abandon a balanced diet. They are offering consumers many of the conventional products that they would buy anyway, they say, but with an added benefit.
The Food and Drug Administration defines functional foods as those claiming to aid the function or structure of the body, such as "calcium builds strong bones." The claims, however, do not have to be cleared in advance by the FDA. They do have to be derived from the product's nutritional content and true.
Consumer advocates don't dispute the labels are true, but they say they frequently leave out information. Phrases such as "made with" and "contains a serving of" are red flags, said Urvashi Rangan, a senior scientist and policy analyst at the Consumers Union.
For example, a product made with whole wheat may not be totally whole wheat. Rangan says to look at the ingredients list on breads, cookies and cereals to see if there are other "enriched" or "unbleached" flours. Same goes for veggie chips, which may be just potato chips dyed red and green with beets and spinach.
Also, a product can claim it's "trans fat free" on the packaging if it has less than a half a gram per serving. Manufacturers can reduce the serving size to meet the criteria. Though, FDA labeling rules would still require hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list.
Peanut butter that contains omega-3 fatty acids from canola or flaxseed oil may have nutritional benefit but also be high in fat and calories and not appropriate for everyone all the time.
"The claims may not be completely devoid of meaning, if they are in context," Rangan said. "In most every case, you look for claims that are specific and verifiable, like '100 percent whole wheat.' You need to flip over the package and read the fine print."
When consumers get all the information, they can decide what's good for them, said Kris Clark, director of sports nutrition and assistant professor of nutrition science at Pennsylvania State University's College of Health and Human Development and a fellow at the professional organization American College of Sports Medicine.
Americans are increasingly overweight and most can't afford "frivolous calories" instead of vitamin and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat dairy products. People should evaluate their whole diet and assess how much they can also snack and what those snacks should be.
So, would she recommend Diet Coke Plus or PepsiCo's Tava, which have vitamins and minerals added, to people already drinking diet sodas? Most dietitians don't recommend soda but prefer diet soda to high-calorie regular soda.
Clark said if they already get enough nutrients from other sources or if they'd be willing to shift to higher-quality foods, they wouldn't need vitamins from diet soda.
"Manufacturers are savvy about consumers being health-conscious and are making every effort to create the myth that nutrients can come from just any old place and that the 'food' vehicle or delivery system doesn't matter," she said. "I just don't buy it."
Food manufacturers say they are responding to demand for more healthful options.
Coca-Cola spokesman Scott Williamson said Diet Coke Plus has been selling well since its launch last year. It still represents a small percentage of sales of Diet Coke, a company best-seller.
He said Coca-Cola is not encouraging customers to forgo fruits, vegetables and grains. Rather, it is offering customers a chance to get something more.
"We do a tremendous amount of research with folks who drink our products," he said. "When we brought up the idea of vitamins and minerals, they thought that was very appealing."
The company also sells other drinks that dietitians more fully endorse, such as orange juice with calcium. Under its Minute Maid brand, it also recently began adding vitamin D to the juice to aid the absorption of calcium - a frequent dietetic criticism is that some nutrients are not absorbed or don't provide much benefit outside of natural foods.
It also has a juice in an effort to aid bone health in a something-for-everyone approach, said company spokesman Ray Crockett.
Kraft Foods has gone as far as to label its functional foods with a "Sensible Solutions" flag to help consumers quickly identify more than 500 products that provide nutrients or are low in calories, fat, sugar or salt. The company said in a statement that flags will simplify choices for consumers who have concerns about health but are not experts in nutrition. And, the company said, functional foods will support the long-term success of the company.
A recent report from the U.S. Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service said the companies are indeed looking for success in sales. They see marketing opportunities even in health-related regulations they once fought.
The report said manufacturers, some who opposed a 2006 FDA rule to list trans fats on food labels, saw a chance to "capture first mover profits." From January 2005 through September 2007, 5,459 products were newly marketed as low or no trans fat.
A report from Plunkett Research Ltd., a Houston-based researcher, said food makers are always looking for new products to sell. And functional foods are enjoying "immense sales."
Revenue in the United States was expected to exceed $37.5 billion by the end of 2007, up from $20.2 billion in 2002.
The next frontier may be "phoods," or mixes of foods and pharmaceuticals. Examples are Nestle's Nutren Balance, a breakfast bar with a high-fiber additive that it says limits blood-sugar swings, and Dannon's Activia, a yogurt with bacteria that it says aids digestion and boosts the immune system.
The conclusion of the report: "Major food companies such as Kraft Foods Inc., Unilever and Nestle S.A. have to produce healthier foods to stay competitive."
Vetting functional foods
Dietitians and consumer groups say there are things to look for when deciding whether it's worth buying a food enhanced with extras that claim to provide a health benefit. Some, such as 100 percent whole wheat breads and pastas, are good. But many products don't contain enough of the nutrients to matter, and others come with a lot of calories, salt and fat.
Tortilla, breads, pasta and cookies made from whole grain: Look to see if the product is 100 percent whole wheat or grain. Check the ingredients list for other kinds of flours.
Peanut butter with omega-3 fatty acids: Flaxseed can provide a good source for the essential fatty acids when processed in foods. But calories, sodium and fat per serving may be high, so moderation is necessary. Fish or flaxseed might be a better regular source.
Diet sodas with vitamins and minerals: While dietitians say diet sodas are better than high-calorie regular sodas, consumers should look to quality foods for their nutrients. They should not drink soda just for the vitamins.
Veggie chips: Check to see if the first ingredient is potato and compare labels. They may be no better nutritionally than their fried counterparts, only dyed red and green with beets and spinach. Also, check to ensure they are not cooked in trans fats, the most unhealthful kind.
Cereal bars with milk: They might be high in calories and sugar and low in calcium. Some nutrients also are not absorbed when consumed outside of their natural state. A bowl of cereal with real milk may be a better source of calcium.