Fast disappearing are the days when we ate simply for sustenance or even pleasure. Nowadays, Americans are asking the food on their plates: "What have you done for me lately?" If they're eating so-called functional foods, the answers may range from boosting spirits to building stronger bones.

Foods as diverse as coffee, cereal, juice, rice and even chewing gum are now bolstered with herbs, vitamins, minerals, protein and other good-for-you supplements. And their popularity is booming. While sales of conventional foods are growing by 1.5 percent annually, the category known as nutraceuticals or "future foods" is expanding at the rate of 9.5 percent, according to one estimate.

Theories abound as to why Americans have taken so enthusiastically to these new foodstuffs. We are a nation of self-improvers. Among the most addicted: baby boomers, who want to stay perpetually healthy and happy. Americans have also cottoned to the idea of taking their health into their own hands and are flocking to alternative natural remedies. They've found that it's easier to crunch or sip your nutrients than swallow them in a pill.

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Critics say the craze for functional foods, like the overwhelming popularity of psychopharmaceutical drugs such as Prozac, reflects America's quick-fix culture. But at least one nutraceutical manufacturer still believes in the talking cure. Every bag of the treat known as Personality Puffs ("made with 17 flowery herbs to help your mood and disposition") lists an 800-number where snackers can reach mental health professionals around the clock.

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