Functional foods ‘kick it up a notch’

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SALEM, Ohio – Diet influences disease. Calcium may help prevent osteoporosis. Eating a diet low in fat may reduce the risk of cancer.

Sure, most people have heard these statements before, but many have also taken them to heart: According to a 2001 estimate, functional food has already captured a $19 billion market in the United States.

These statements have created such a buzz that researchers are now taking a closer look at these so-called functional foods.

Making it easy. So what exactly is a functional food?

It’s your orange juice that is fortified with calcium or a snack bar containing fiber – a regular food with an extra health benefit beyond basic nutrition.

The calcium in the orange juice helps prevent osteoporosis; the fiber in the snack bar reduces the risk of cancer.

Fruits and vegetables are also functional foods, according to Josh Bomser, from Ohio State’s Food, Science and Technology Department.

Beyond their basic nutritional value, fruits and vegetables have additional health benefits, like preventing or delaying the onset of chronic disease.

“We’ve known a long time [about the link between disease and diet], but only recently has there been a systematic approach to studying these affects on disease,” Bomser said.

Closer glance. Economist Neal H. Hooker is studying the market trends of functional foods and their implication for agribusiness, focusing on the benefit to producers.

The $19 billion market is only part of the approximately $70 billion foods-for-heath market, which includes medical food, organic food and dietary supplements, according to Hooker, who is a professor with the OSU Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics.

One of the problems Hooker faces is that there is not a formal definition for this newly emerging market.

Nevertheless, this hasn’t hindered the market’s growth rate, which is currently estimated to be between 8 percent and 10 percent, according to Hooker’s preliminary functional foods report.

Estimates for 2008 predict the market will grow to more than $29 billion.

Driving this market is an aging population, Hooker said.

“The ‘traditional’ consumer of health-based products is over 50 years of age,” Hooker wrote in the preliminary report. “This group is an increasing proportion of the population, yet is far from the only target consumer of functional foods.”

Another force behind functional foods is the medical research that is making the health claims possible.

Once the research is found, the sky is the limit, he said.

Ag impact. Consumers aren’t the only ones who may benefit from these disease-preventing foods. Farmers can get in on the mix, too.

One way producers may benefit from this potential new market is through unique production methods, Hooker said.

“If a farmer’s soybeans have a unique mix of isoflavones, or the milk has a certain attribute that provides health benefits, then the farmer must differentiate his or her product from products that do not have such ‘value-added’ [attributes]. Then a higher price may be provided.

“However, to ensure that higher returns are shared with the producers, we will likely see more complex contracts and vertical coordination or cooperation with the food processors and manufacturers.”

Legal look. Because functional foods are not a dietary supplement, they are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration like other conventional food. Therefore, these foods are only allowed specific authorized health claims.

Some of these claims include the link between soy protein and coronary heart disease; sodium and hypertension; and folate and neural tube defects.

Consumers do not need to be as skeptical with functional foods as they are with dietary supplements, Hooker said. Supplements have a less rigid review and appeal process and often make unsubstantiated health claims.

Vs. pill form. Although many of the vitamins in functional foods could be taken in pill form, Hooker said, “the theory seems to be that people are more likely to fit a ‘traditional’ format product into their regular day-to-day activities.

“For example, if a person has been recommended to eat more soy, it is easier to do so by consuming a bread with soy than eating a regular bread and then drinking a glass of soy milk.”

In addition, Bomser said food typically has more than that one health benefit, and by eating the food, people are getting a better balance of nutrition.

There’s also the speculation of bioavailability – that the nutritional component is better absorbed with regular food than in a pill form, Bomser said.

Functional future. Bomser said the future implication of functional foods is that there will be more research, and therefore, more claims on existing foods.

In addition, he anticipates that more health claims will gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Another possibility is that researchers will find a nutritional benefit of an element and then begin adding it to food.

For example, Bomser said research is being done on lutein, which may help maintain healthy eyes. Eventually he said lutein may be added to food with a claim for ocular health.

Health hurdles. Despite the broad horizon for consumers and health benefits, there are obstacles.

First of all, people sometimes hear that something is good for them and then go overboard consuming it, Bomser said.

Anything can be toxic in access – even nutritional products – meaning there’s the possibility of negative consequences and adverse effects with overindulgence, he said.

In addition, to combat the possibility of elements in functional foods interacting with medications, adequate safety testing and consumer education needs to done, Bomser said.

(You can contact Kristy Alger at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at kalger@farmanddairy.com.)

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