Functional Foods

Functional Foods

What’s red and round and contains lycopene? Hippocrates would have called it a tomato. Proponents of the next nutritional wave of foods in Canada would call it a gold mine.

What’s red and round and contains lycopene? Hippocrates would have called it a tomato. Proponents of the next nutritional wave of foods in Canada would call it a gold mine.

Functional foods are everyday foods with an added health kick. Margarine that contains plant sterols is one example, says Dr. David Kitts, professor of nutrition at the University of British Columbia.

“Plant sterols wouldn’t be present in margarine normally,” he says, “but they can be formulated and added to margarine. Sterols may lower cholesterol and LDL [low-density lipoprotein, or bad] cholesterol in particular. Therefore, the regular consumption of margarine would have a cholesterol-lowering effect.”

Other functional foods include sports drinks with energy boosters such as ginseng or green tea. Yogourts with probiotics. Eggs with omega-3 essential fatty acids. The possibilities are endless but raise a lot of questions. How should functional foods be regulated? Are their benefits overrated? Are they even safe?

Potentially Lucrative

The Natural Health Products Directorate, a division of Health Canada, governs functional foods and nutraceuticals, otherwise known as natural health products. Kitts explains the difference in terms of research he has been conducting on vitamin C and acerola cherries. If vitamin C is sourced from acerola cherries and sold in pill form, it’s a nutraceutical. If it’s added to another product for health promotion, say, to a cereal, that product becomes a functional food.

“Functional foods are potentially a huge market,” says Kitts. “Consumers are becoming more aware of the role of diet in reducing risk of certain chronic diseases and they’re interested in learning more.”

In 2005 estimated global sales of functional foods were US$73.5 billion and are expected to reach US$167 billion after 2010. A 2003 report by HCS Research and Analysis puts Canada’s percentage of the global market at 2.8 percent, despite our relatively low population–and this may grow. The federal government announced in June 2007 their $721,000 investment in the Nutri-Net Canada project to help expand market opportunities for functional foods and nutraceuticals.

Take This with a Grain of Salt

Functional foods, experts point out, aren’t the miracle foods that marketers often make them out to be. “The 2 g of sterols [per 1 1/2 Tbsp (22 mL) of sterol-enhanced margarine] per day effectively lower LDL cholesterol,” points out Kitts. “If you consume less than that, you may not get the efficacy you’re hoping to get. This could well be true with any functional food.”

Kitts says that functional foods are a good complement to a lifestyle change, and as prevention, but they’re not meant as treatment. “Just like dietary supplements, functional foods work even better if you combine them with a healthy lifestyle.”

But are they totally safe? In the May 2007 British Medical Journal, Dutch researchers questioned the potential risks of cholesterol-lowering margarines. Nynke de Jong and his colleagues expressed their concern that these products could trigger reactions in people also taking statin drugs for a similar purpose. The double dose of medication plus higher blood sterols could thicken arteries and thus increase the risk of heart attack.

“There is no evidence that functional foods cause harm,” de Jong states, “but the data are limited to five to six years of study and a restricted number of users.” De Jong also notes that
limited data are available about the impact of functional foods on the community. He makes a case for postlaunch monitoring to provide consumers with “practical and unbiased information.”

Lycopene Beer?

“I don’t know of any functional foods that have proven toxic,” says Kitts. “They have to go through tremendous scientific rigour to be approved.”

Both basic and clinical research has to be done, agrees Dr. Venket Rao of the Department of Nutrition of University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine. Yet Rao asks whether sufficient research is done to determine a safe upper level of consumption. “If lycopene is good, should we add it to toothpaste or beer?” he asks.

The average consumer would find it difficult to calculate exactly how much of a functional food component they’re receiving, he admits. “We definitely need good science, but we also need good regulations and the integrity of stakeholders to make sure consumer interests are safeguarded.”

Food as Medicine

Naturopathic physician John Pidutti of Vancouver is also skeptical, but he remains open-minded about functional foods. “The original concept of food as medicine has been around since Hippocrates,” he says. “But this new idea of isolating components and putting them into other foods is almost playing with the drug model. Isolate a molecule, create a pill, get a change. But with drugs, you also create side effects. That’s the question with
functional foods, too. Are we going to create side effects?”

Pidutti uses whole foods as medicine at the Springs Eternal Natural Health Clinic (springseternal.com) for the prevention and treatment of specific conditions. For example, if a patient has an inflammatory condition, a uniquely tailored dietary plan would involve removing any food that is potentially irritating and substituting whole foods that help the body fight inflammation, such as garlic, fish oils, and berries.

“Foods in their natural form offer the optimal balance of nutrients,” he says. “Their efficacy comes from the symbiotic effect of these different nutrients. A functional food can’t touch this.”

Natural health products from whole food sources retain this benefit, too. “Nutraceutical constituents derived from natural whole food sources are becoming the way to go,” agrees Kitts. “You’re getting the whole food source, which means there are other things there that provide a synergy or enhancing effect that you don’t get when you’re dealing with a single manufactured compound.”

On the other hand, Pidutti doesn’t dismiss the possible benefits of functional foods–once people get past the marketing hype and those remaining questions about their safety are answered. “Functional foods bring to the table this concept that food is more than carbohydrates and fats,” he says. “Hopefully this will heighten people’s awareness about what goes in their bodies.”

Five Health Claims Allowed Under Canadian Regulations

Current Canadian regulations allow only the following five generic health claims, while the United States allows 18. Still, is our more conservative stance the smart one?

  1. A healthy diet low in sodium and high in potassium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure.
  2. A healthy diet with adequate calcium and vitamin D may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
  3. A healthy diet low in saturated and trans fats may reduce the risk of heart disease.
  4. A healthy diet rich in a variety of vegetables and fruits may help reduce the risk of some types of cancers.
  5. Dietary sugar alcohols in gums and hard candies do not promote tooth decay.

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