The food industry has been very interested in ‘functional foods’ over the last few years. There has been considerable hype in trade magazines and journals, and at conferences and seminars about the huge potential market for these special foods. A number of factors have caused this interest:
- Consumer research indicates that we (the general public) are becoming increasingly interested in health and nutrition.
- Nutritional science linking the foods we choose to eat to our health status is getting stronger.
- New technologies are permitting innovation in food manufacture.
- Governments are concerned about the cost (social and economic) of diet-related disability. Pharmaceutical costs continue to rise – exponentially in some cases!
The problem is that most people are not aware of ‘functional foods’ and anyway, there is no way most of us would compromise on taste, and the eating habits of a lifetime, unless we were very motivated. Suffering a heart attack or the pain of arthritis can lead to dramatic changes in eating habits, but prevention of diet-related health problems is a poor motivator for the immortal under 35s!
The challenge for governments and the food industry is how to motivate people to change their eating habits when they feel fit and well – and have other more pressing problems such as coping with teenagers, paying the bills or relationship breakdowns.
There are a number of ways to approach this problem – some call for increased taxes on so-called ‘unhealthy food’ to make them less desirable. Others call for permission to make health claims on food to make the healthier options more desirable.
In my view the most effective way to improve our nutritional health is to offer foods which look the same, taste the same and cost (about) the same as the foods we eat everyday, but are nutritionally superior.
What does this mean for governments? It means that government funded food supplies should favour healthier options – which may mean paying slightly more. A few examples: foods for children in schools should be prepared with more expensive oils such as canola or olive oil instead of partially hydrogenated fats. Children tend to love white bread, so a high fibre option which looks and tastes the same as soft white bread, can be substituted. At the other end of the age spectrum, high fibre foods in nursing homes can help alleviate expensive anti-constipation medications. This approach requires a total re-think of government contracts to include nutrition and consumer acceptability as critical factors.
This approach also means that agricultural policies need to be re-examined; research funding allocated more appropriately; education of doctors in nutrition so they prescribe foods rather than pharmaceuticals where appropriate, and so on. The status of food should be increased so that food choice relies on more than just a taste sensation in the mouth or a reaction to marketing hype.
What does this mean for the food industry? It means that companies need to take a good hard look at their product portfolio and how these products are made and promoted. Is there an opportunity to use more nutritious ingredients? What new technologies are available to retain the natural nutrition in ingredients? Are snack foods promoted alongside a physically active lifestyle to help reduce the overwhelming obesity problems in the western world? How can the brand be enhanced by association with high quality, relevant nutrition?
Expensive or poor tasting functional foods are attractive only to the highly motivated. What we need are foods which can be easily substituted for present favourites – and offer nutritional advantages for everyone.
In Australia, as in other countries, there are already examples of success –
- A wheat fraction, from previously discarded material, high in bioavailable folic acid, iron and zinc can be added to breads and baked foods.
- Dairy fractions can now be produced providing calcium, antimicrobials, bioactive proteins, immune and/or growth factors.
- A maize starch naturally high in resistant starch has been developed, which can be added (invisibly) to white bread and many other foods.
- Innovative technology has allowed the microencapsulation of tuna oil so that a wide range of drinks and foods can have significant omega-3 DHA levels – again invisibly.
- An oat fraction has been developed, which is rich in beta-glucans, shown to lower cholesterol levels.
I have only been able to touch on a range of issues – one important area is in regard to communication. Surely food manufacturers should be able to inform their potential customers of the additional benefits they offer? Yet health and nutrition claims remain a controversial subject in most countries.