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The line between food and medicine is blurrier than ever — and the FDA needs to step up its game

The line between food and medicine is blurrier than ever — and the FDA needs to step up its game


Collagen in food probably doesn’t do much

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Is tea medicine? What about special Collagen Beautèa that promises to support your bones? This week, The Wall Street Journal reported on the growing popularity of foods and beverages enhanced with collagen, an ingredient used in wrinkle cream that hasn’t really been proven to be helpful when you eat it. The line between “food” and “medicine” has always been blurry, and, traditionally, the US Food and Drug Administration only regulates the latter. But as people start chasing foods with more fanciful health promises, it’s time that the FDA takes a closer look before we waste our dollars and endanger our health.

Though collagen is a protein found in bones, it is most commonly known for being an ingredient in skin cream, often to prevent wrinkles. But why stop at skin? Last year, 281 new food and supplement products featuring collagen were introduced in the US, the WSJ reported, citing Innova Market Insights. And while there’s little evidence that eating collagen will harm you, there is also no solid research suggesting that eating collagen will help either.

Consumers don’t have time to evaluate peer-reviewed research, which is exactly why we have regulatory agencies like the FDA

For now, it’s unlikely that people will poison themselves with collagen-infused energy bars, though animal bones do hold lead, which might be harmful in the long run. (Still, the far greater risk is that people are wasting money.) But as health and “wellness” become more and more popular, and we’re all told to live our best lives, we’re going to hear more and more of these claims. It’s no longer enough for a food to just be “healthy” and not processed. We also want food to make our skin better, strengthen our joints, and keep our hair from falling out.

These collagen bars and teas are considered “functional foods,” or foods that claim to be healthy beyond just basic nutrition. Technically, the FDA does regulate “functional foods,” but in practice, it doesn’t; the FDA has no official definition for functional foods. That makes regulation impossible.

It’s understandable that it’s difficult to come up with a precise definition. What does it even mean for something to be healthy “beyond basic nutrition”? Already, the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic argues that “for critically and chronically ill people, food is medicine,” but you don’t need to be chronically ill to know that food can make us feel better or worse. There have been studies linking certain diets to lower rates of depression, or discussing the health benefits of bananas. Food clearly has an effect on our well-being, and it can affect our health, so it’s natural to think that if good food can make us healthy, why can’t enhanced food make us even healthier?

Collagen Beautèa uses the language of science, citing “clinically backed collagen protein,” despite the fact that most studies that find a benefit are small and funded by a company that sells these foods. Consumers don’t have time to evaluate peer-reviewed research and figure this out to save their money. That’s exactly why we have regulatory agencies like the FDA.

The FDA has long been criticized for not regulating supplements, which leads to supplements having illegal stimulants in them. In this era of wellness, the FDA needs to overhaul its policies. It needs to regulate supplements to regulate what’s in them and be aggressive about monitoring functional foods and restricting the claims people can make about what these foods will and won’t do for your body. We want to be healthy, but the question of what’s “healthy” is a massive, complicated endeavor that most of us can’t figure out. It’s easier to just buy the damn tea and the supplements your friend is suggesting. It’s only human. And so the FDA needs to step in and protect our health before we harm ourselves in pursuit of it.