This phenomena has been explained by a recent NY Times article (5/14/11).
But how healthful are they? Is there actually science behind these claims?
Usually there is at least one scientific study which the companies use as a marketing springboard for their "functional food" product. But as far as how healthy the food item may be, the "for your health" advertising is often misleading and incomplete.
One such example is American Heart Association-approved Welches Grape Juice. It is approved because it is fat free (as opposed to those lard-laden juices?). Welches Grape Juice earns the AHA red "Healthy Heart" logo on the front of the juice containers, even though it contains 36 grams of sugar per serving (eight ounces). This amount of sugar falls somewhere between a Mountain Dew and a Pepsi- not what I'd call healthy, and probably not the best for your cardiovascular system.
In another particularly egregious use of research to promote "functional foods," Kellogg's Frosted Mini Wheats was marketing their cereal as improving children's attentiveness. These results were obtained by comparing children's attentiveness in the morning before their breakfast and after three hours. The control group got water for breakfast. Only half of the Mini Wheats kids showed better attentiveness than the water-fasted kids.
So it doesn't appear that concerned parents should be loading their kids up on those sugar bombs just quite yet. After whole wheat, the three remaining primary ingredients in Frosted Mini Wheats are sugar, high fructose corn syrup and gelatin. I can think of just a few better ideas for improving a child's attention than those food items.
So, how to tell what's what when grocery store items are being branded and sponsored by national disease associations faster than NASCAR drivers? First take a look at the ingredients, and turn a discerning eye to those which are "enriched" or include ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, artificial coloring (like red # 40). If the food has a longer ingredient list than you have an attention span for reading, the processed nature probably outweighs the health benefits.
Thanks for reading!