New food trends may be dysfunctional

dysfunctional food trendsAs our obesity epidemic gets worse and the general health of Americans continues to decline, people are always searching for new food trends to make us thinner, happier and smarter.

The leading contenders for the next new thing are functional foods. Frankly, these are simply processed foods with added dietary supplements to make you more likely to purchase them compared to the competition on the same shelf. Of course, this means the functional food can’t be too much more expensive than its competitor (and ideally the same price) without affecting the taste of the product. As an afterthought, it might even have some health benefit for you.

Frankly, there are only two functional foods that have been truly successful over the years. The first is Gatorade. Originally developed to reduce minerals lost during exercise, the original Gatorade tasted terrible. So they simply added some sugar to make it taste better and called it a sports drink. Gatorade is basically a Coke or a Pepsi with minerals, but you feel better about yourself when you guzzle down those carbohydrates. The other commercial success was Tropicana Orange Juice with Calcium. The makers of Tropicana didn’t ask you to pay a premium for this functional food since it was exactly the same price as Tropicana Orange Juice without calcium. That’s why the sales of this functional food dramatically increased. Who doesn’t want something extra (and it might even be healthy) for free?

It’s been a long time since any new functional foods tried to break into the market. The two most recent have been POM and Activia yogurt. POM contains polyphenols from the pomegranate seed. That’s good because polyphenols are excellent anti-oxidants and potentially good anti-inflammatory chemicals. But like the minerals in Gatorade, they taste terrible. So when you purchase a bottle of POM, what you are getting is a mass of added sugar. I guarantee you that the intake of these polyphenols in POM is not worth the extra sugar.

Another “new” source of polyphenols we hear about comes from chocolate, which is now being promoted as the new super-fruit (1). Like all polyphenols, the polyphenols found in chocolate are intensely bitter. That’s why no one likes to eat unsweetened Baker’s Chocolate even though it is polyphenol-rich. But if you add a lot of sugar to it, then it tastes great. In fact, it’s a candy bar. Again like most functional foods, these polyphenol functional foods represent one step forward in that you are consuming more polyphenols, but two steps backwards for consuming too much sugar.

Tasting bad is something that has really prevented yogurt sales from taking off in America. The solution was simple. Add more sweetness, usually in the form of fruit plus extra sugar. Finally, natural yogurt became acceptable. But to turn it into a functional food, Dannon decided to add more probiotics to its already sugar-sweetened yogurt and call it Activia, promoting it to help soothe an angry digestive system. In December 2010 the Federal Trade Commission stepped in and hit Dannon with a $21-million fine for false advertising (2). Not only were the levels of probiotics in Activia too low to be of any health benefit, but Dannon was also making drug-claims on a food to boot. Not surprisingly, the FTC is also after POM for similar misleading claims (3). Darned those regulators. They take all the fun out of marketing functional foods.

The list goes on and on. Whether it is vitamin waters, or micro-encapsulated fish oil, vitamin D, etc., trying to put bad-tasting nutritional supplements that have some proven benefits into foods and charge the consumer a higher price is never going to work. To prevent the poor taste, you have to microencapsulate the supplement to make it sound high-tech, (they call it nanotechnology) and this costs a lot of money. Adding the bad-tasting nutritional supplement without the microencapsulation to a food makes it taste worse (unless you are adding a lot of sugar at the same time, of course eroding all the potential health benefits of the supplement). Finally, the consumer will only buy this new functional food if it is the same price as what they usually purchase.

So what’s the next new thing in functional foods? In my opinion, it is returning to the concept of cooking for yourself in your own kitchen using food ingredients you buy on the periphery of the supermarket, and then taking the nutritional supplements that have proven efficacy (like fish oil and polyphenols) at the therapeutic level to produce real health benefits. Now you have real functional foods that finally work at a lower cost than you would pay for in the supermarket.

Now, that’s a radical new food trend that just might work.


1. Crozier SJ, Preston AG, Hurst JW, Payne MJ, Mann J, Hainly L, and Miller DL. “Cacao seeds are a ‘super fruit’: A comparative analysis of various fruit powders and products.” Chem Central J 5:5 (2011)

2. Horovitz B. “Dannon’s Activia, DanActive health claims draw $21M fine.” USA Today. December 15, 2010

3. Wyatt E. “Regulators Call Health Claims in Pom Juice Ads Deceptive.” New York Times. September 27, 2010

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

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This entry was posted in Zone Health and tagged , , , , , , , , , by Dr. Barry Sears. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr. Barry Sears

Dr. Barry Sears is a leading authority on the impact of the diet on hormonal response, genetic expression, and inflammation. A former research scientist at the Boston University School of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Sears has dedicated his research efforts over the past 30 years to the study of lipids. He has published more than 30 scientific articles and holds 13 U.S. patents in the areas of intravenous drug delivery systems and hormonal regulation for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. He has also written 13 books, including the New York Times #1 best-seller "The Zone". These books have sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and have been translated into 22 different languages.

19 thoughts on “New food trends may be dysfunctional

      • And weeding through all the misinformation that we have been given over the years. All the “sort of” true facts…but somewhat misleading….
        I’m so happy to know that there are good nutritional facts to be learned as well. Now, it’s just getting it out there, and heard. Making it possible, and not seem inconvenient to take good care of our nutritional health. Thanks for all your fantastic research Dr. Sears!

  1. Hello Dr Sears,
    I suffer with severe IBS with all the usual associated symptoms. I have been on the Zone for a while but still get the problems. I’ve been told to try Food Combining – that is eating: proteins & starch/carbohydrates in isolation of each other. I’ve researched as much as I can and it seems most people are on the fence… What are your impressions? Can you do “The Zone” and food combining at the same time?

    • This message is for Prue, who has IBS symptoms. I know of a product that may help you; it has helped me with IBS symptoms. It is “Heather’s Tummy Fibers”, and the website is “”. Go to this website and you will gain so much information on your medical problem. It has helped so many people. I use Heather’s Tummy Fiber almost every day and it has been extremely helpful. My condition is not severe, but it should help you immensely.

      • this is for Prue, I have IBS as well and I found that if I stopped eating those starchy carbohydrates like pastas, rice, potatoes ect… that my IBS was decreased by 80%. I still have a little bit to satisfy the cravings.
        I would give that a go before you start putting any kind of product in your body. Thats just my thoughts. Stay away from sugars and less red meat as well. Hope that helps you.

  2. Food combining makes no sense metabolically. If you want to balance the hormonal responses of food you should combine protein, carbohydrate, and fat at every meal to generate a consistent hormonal response. That’s also the way to control cellular inflammation that is the driving force behind IBS.

    I might suggest eliminating more modern food ingredients (grains, dairy products, and vegetable oils) from your current Zone diet to reduce their impact on inflammation.

  3. I completely agree with your assessment. I’ve watched well-meaning friends dive into the latest health food craze (you could add Kombuchka to this list) and just bloat themselves.

    By the way, I really appreciate that you didn’t turn this informative article into a pitch for Zone bars (let’s face it, another functional food.) Although I enjoy them as an occasional bridge between meals, there’s no substitute for a home-cooked, sit-down dinner.

  4. Dr. Sears,

    I guess I have non-commercial taste buds. I like plain non-fat Greek style yogurt and unsweetened chocolate.

    How much unsweetened chocolate can I eat on a regular basis?

    I live in a place where chocolate grows. Is any of the natural fruit edible?


    Ed C

    • A 100-gram bar of unsweetened chocolate will contain about 9,000 ORAC units or the equivalent of 10 servings of fruits and vegetables or two glass of red wine. Unfortunately that same 100-gram bar contains about 500 calories of fat.

      I am not sure about the fruit being edible since the chocolate comes from the nut.

  5. Thanks Dr. Sears for the “skinny” (couldn’t help it) on fads and also the food industry. More and more research is showing that ancient simple foods and the necessary manipulations that make that food edible in the first place, and give it some shelf life (using fermentation for both) was good for people. The US has lost its knack and taste for such things and it shows. Everywhere you turn here it is sweets, sweets, sweets and fast starches. Humans can’t handle that for more reasons than we have discovered yet. P.S. I hate Kombuchka, its full of sugar and caffeine.

  6. Hi Dr. Sears,
    Thank you for these informative posts. I take the OmegaRx fish oil capsules and the Polyphenol Plus capsules every day. One of your posters metioned mixing unsweetened cocoa powder with yogurt. Is there such a thing as consuming too high a dose of polyphenols? I’d like to try adding cocoa powder to yogurt and protein shakes, but I don’t want to have too much of a good thing.

    Oh, one more, unrelated, thing. If you live outside the U.S. but visit once or twice a year, using autoship is an effective way to keep yourself supplied with Zone products without paying high shipping costs.

    Thank you!


    • Polyphenols have a very low absorption so it takes a lot them to make an impact. Two recent articles indicated that 16,000 ORAC units of concentrated blueberries appears to the be the threshold to start to see some metabolic benefits on reducing inflammation. Of course, the lower the levels of inflammation to begin with, the less polyphenols are needed to help control it.

  7. I never ever eat out. Everything I eat I eat at home and cook from scratch.
    i.e. I make my own catsup, no sugar, no salt, easy with tomato paste, white vinegar, splenda, garlic & onion powder. that’s it. delicious.
    another i.e., I eat a lot of pasta, Dreamfield brand, low carb, (5g digestibel carbs in a serving and a glycemic index of 13)
    I make my own pizza crust & bread, hamburger rolls with Tova brand low carb Carbalose flour also very low digestible carbs and very low glycemic index.
    I buy these products from
    I am a cancer survivor. I take Sears Sea Health, Bone support, EicoRx & Polyphenol Plus. I’m 75 and never felt better.

  8. You might be interested in cloning your own fast foods. I’ve been making McDonalds recipes for a few years. I substitute favorable foods like turkey burger for hamburger & soy cheese for cheddar but nobody can tell the difference.
    I especially like Todd Wilbur and his cloned recipes but today he has put most of his recipes in a book to buy but you can see him make some free recipes on YouTube.
    Last year I developed the habit of sprouting seeds. Now this is nutrition at it’s best.

  9. With the constant barrage of new health/food info in the media, it’s no wonder that many people can’t see the forest for the trees. Thanks Dr. Sears for continually directing our attention to the most important basics and for giving us the means (the Zone) by which we can apply these basics each and every day.

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