Food Is the New Pharma: Nestlé Aims to Enter the Functional Foods Market

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Nestlé, one of the world’s most successful packaged-food companies, is planning to pioneer a new industry to bridge the ever-narrowing gap between food and medicine. The company announced it would invest about $500 million in a new venture called “Nestlé Health Science” to develop foods and supplements designed to help prevent diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease.

Part of an emerging field of “functional foods,” Nestlé’s nutritional products would most likely be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER), according to an FDA representative. CBER evaluates foods that make health claims, such as Danone’s Activia yogurt, which contains “probiotics” and is marketed as a promoter of good digestion. (More on Time.com: The ‘Other’ Salt: 5 Foods Rich in Potassium)

Of course, the FDA and FTC have been cracking down of late on misleading health claims by makers of functional foods and nutraceuticals (see POM Wonderful), so any new anti-Alzheimer’s product from Nestlé is sure to come under increased government scrutiny.

European guidelines are no less stringent, or really any clearer. Danone withdrew and had to resubmit its application to the Food Safety Authority when it tried to add an immunity boost claim about the yogurt, Activel. The company didn’t have to complete more research: they simply didn’t know how to organize it.

No surprise, Nestlé is prepared. To produce the government-required scientific data, the company is also creating the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences, which will partner with venerated research university, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, in Switzerland, where Nestlé is headquartered.

Still, the explicit health claims Nestlé plans to make — namely, helping to prevent diseases like diabetes or Alzheimer’s — are materially different from somewhat lesser claims about aiding digestion, so it will be interesting to see how the government handles the new products. (More on Time.com: Why Can’t Americans Eat Their Fruits and Veggies?)

For now, food-makers seem to be suffering from a basic level of confusion about what kind of health claims they can make on food packages. Indeed, the laws governing health and disease claims and labeling language on packaged foods are complex. (In May, an Institute of Medicine report said the FDA should be able to apply “the same degree of scientific rigor” to health-related claims on foods and nutritional supplements as it does to drugs and medical devices, according to the Wall Street Journal‘s health blog.)

But while the government may regulate your foods and medicines differently, it’s worth remembering that the foods you eat are already affecting your health, regardless of what’s on the label. And, by the way, foods that the strongest scientific evidence suggest as beneficial to health — like fresh-from-the-farm fruits and vegetables — don’t have a label to begin with.

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