By Lance Gay
Scripps Howard News Service
March 25, 2005
Food scientists say these products are the vanguard of a revolution in farm fields and processing plants thanks to advances in microbiology and plant engineering. The advances will make it possible to produce new generations of "functional foods" altered to give specific health benefits or change the body's chemistry to avert cancers.
"We're really in a pioneering period of this era," said Fergus Clydesdale, head of the department of food science at the University of Massachusetts.
Clydesdale, chairman of a 28-member panel of the Institute of Food Technologists studying the issue, says he sees a future where people can tailor their diets to specific genetically inherited disorders, and so ward off cancers or arterial diseases that killed their ancestors.
"The functional foods currently available represent only a fraction of the potential opportunities for consumers to manage their health through diet," he said.
"Phoods" and their liquid counterparts "bepherages" aren't really new. Iodine was added to salt early in the 20th century in a public health campaign to counter incidences of goiter, and consumers are used to seeing on supermarket shelves products like calcium-enriched orange juice, vitamin D-enhanced milk and drinks fortified for energy.
Food scientists say they have identified specific food components that could improve memory, reduce arthritis and have other advantages currently achieved by taking specific drugs. By altering some of the basic components of food, supermarkets in the future could sell products that increase energy, improve mental alertness, or encourage more restful sleep.
The experts are sketching out a future where vegetables could be grown and packaged foods processed with added functions catering to individuals now on a regime of drugs. For an aging American population, it could mean foods specially made to meet their different nutritional demands.
The prospect has touched off considerable excitement both in the government and food industry, which estimates the $16.2 billion functional food market will increase by 7 percent a year in the next five years. The American Dietetic Association says the advances in microbiology are making irrelevant studies that assess only the nutrient content of foods. Science is showing far greater advantages to human health could be achieved from noting the health impacts of the basic flavors, sugars and other components that make up the nutrients.
Diane Birt, chair of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at Iowa State University, said one barrier confronting the introduction of more functional foods is outdated government rules prohibiting food companies from making any drug claims on their products.
For example, FDA regulations say food manufacturers aren't permitted to put on their products any claims that their products reduce cholesterol because that is a drug claim. But the FDA does permit the qualified claim that the particular food "maintains normal cholesterol levels."
Birt said scientific studies show a diet of oats results in lower cholesterol levels, but companies would have to process oats as a new drug - a process that takes years of testing and FDA regulatory reviews - in order to say that.
In 1997, for example, the FDA ruled the industry could not market cranberry juice as helping prevent urinary tract infections, even though the agency's scientists acknowledged the components of cranberry juice have that effect.
Birt said the regulatory barrier has resulted in "vague and misleading labels" on foods known to be beneficial to certain health problems. She predicted the agency is going to be flooded with an array of issues like the cranberry juice controversy as functional foods develop.
"We have just touched the possibilities here. The FDA is already scrambling to keep up with claims being made," she said.
The Institute of Food Technologists suggests that the FDA devise new regulations to permit more specific health claims on products where scientific studies can prove health benefits and give speedier review of food products known already to be safe for human consumption.
Gilbert Leveille, a Michigan State University food science professor who retired from the food giant Cargill, said science is already finding ways to concentrate the beneficial components of foods.
He said that to achieve the benefits from cranberry juice, a person would have to drink 16 ounces of cranberry juice a day. But since the component that lines the urinary tract has been identified, it would be easy to concentrate it and produce a 4-ounce cranberry juice cocktail that has the same qualities.
Leveille said there are anti-cancer benefits from eating licorice and health benefits from chocolate that previously could be obtained only by eating huge quantities, but which now could be processed into concentrated forms.
Leveille said the federal government could speed up marketing by giving companies that produce functionally enhanced foods exclusive rights to produce them for a period of time - a move that would cover the research and development costs.
"The bright line between food and drugs has been blurred," he said.
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