Monday, April 04, 2005

Food for Thought: Improving Prospects for Functional Foods

Improving Prospects for Functional Foods
Janet Raloff

In the past decade, food and dietary-supplement manufacturers have created a new niche industry—one in which their goods do more than provide nutrition or gustatory pleasure. Designed to promote optimal health and reduce risk of disease, such products have come to be known as functional foods or nutraceuticals.

OJ with meds

Last week, the Chicago-based Institute of Food Technologists (IFT)—a scientific society of researchers in industry, universities, and government—released a report on this nascent industry and concluded that it is "at the threshold of unprecedented influence on public health and disease prevention." However, IFT added, the industry's growth, while rapid, faces major roadblocks to expansion unless the federal government institutes new regulations to streamline the Food and Drug Administration's evaluation of candidates for this novel class of products.

If there were only a few dozen functional foods, manufacturers would probably be content to continue finessing the food-and-supplement regulations. However, the new IFT report notes, waves of these products are about to flood the U.S. market. In addition, the report predicted that the U.S. medical community will become more accepting of functional foods and begin recommending them as adjuncts to conventional medicines, approaching the current attitude of the European medical community.

The report points to three new research disciplines that underlie efforts to develop functional foods.
The first is the study of the interaction of dietary components with genes, a field called nutrigenomics.
The second discipline that's affecting nutraceuticals' development, proteomics, is the study of all proteins that can be produced by a person's genes.
The last field that's boosting interest in functional foods is metabolomics (sometimes called metabonomics), which focuses on cells. Researchers examine how inputs of food, drugs, or potential toxicants affect the health of cells and particular tissues.

Public benefits

Manufacturers aren't the only ones that stand to benefit from an overhauling of how FDA regulates functional foods, the report says. Consumers want to eat healthier but often don't know what health-promoting ingredients to look for or what quantities to eat for optimum benefits. Food labels carrying functional-food claims could become "the foundation for consumer education regarding dietary components for health," the report argues.

Food for Thought: Improving Prospects for Functional Foods, Science News Online, April 2, 2005


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