Super-foods or super-frauds?

The news is in. Functional foods are super popular and suppliers cannot keep up with demand. But is the hype justified?

Açaí berry suppliers can not keep up with demand. Suppliers are operating at capacity every day of the week, and many promotional partners have been told to reduce advertising spending, or operate on their own risk, in order to decrease surplus demand.

At the same time two new super-foods are the latest in a list of three GM food products, claiming to improve health, which have passed preliminary research stages.

A purple tomato has been crossed with snapdragon genes to reportedly boost levels of the anthocyanins antioxidants in mice; and a GM soya-bean has been found high in long chain Omega-3 acids (chiefly found in oily fish) which proponents claim may stop heart attacks. The two join ‘Golden rice’ – a genetically-modified rice variety for elevated vitamin A levels.

While in the past it was pretty obvious if a food item was healthy – an apple, pear or even a banana, meant healthy; a deep-fried chocolate bar – not really; with modern possibilities, such black and white distinctions may have to remain right there, in the past.

Today’s foods can be filled with additives bold enough to turn the humble hamburger into a healthy healer. These nutrient-dense super-foods have many doctors and nutritionists believing in their ability to help prevent diseases. Examples of super-foods include spirulina, spinach, salmon, and of course all those super-berries.

In the world of functional ingredients, choosing what to incorporate into production can certainly be a confusing experience. So the question for manufacturers is how do the benefits of super-foods differ from other options available in the market?

According to the Garvan Institute’s Diabetes and Obesity Group’s PHD candidate, Jane Reznick, “super-foods contain a higher content of phytonutrients – plant derived chemicals believed to be beneficial to human health.

“There is a vast range of food available on the market, and some of it is nutritionally poor or even deleterious. For example foods that are high in sugar or trans-fats can lead to diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Not only do these foods present stress to the body but they do not provide any of the essential nutrients it needs for keeping healthy.

“Super-foods, however, have high nutritional content per calorie and therefore give added benefits to the body to help it keep healthy, while potentially guarding off diseases such as diabetes and cancer.”

With the hype surrounding these foods, and the further development and creation of GM super-foods, the question remains of whether there is any truth in the health claims, or whether the excitement is based purely on the glorification of the consumers’ wishful thinking.

“As scientific research gets more and more sophisticated, we’re discovering how our body functions and the chemical and molecular processes that occur in our bodies when we are healthy, and when we are sick,” said Reznick. “Naturally occurring super-foods are therefore very exciting as we discover that they contain the nutrients and chemicals that our body needs for some of its processes.

“As the causes of certain diseases become clearer, we begin to understand that a lack of particular nutrients can lead to some serious malfunctions, which then result in diseases. The lack of folic acid in a mother’s diet, for example, can lead to the baby being born with the debilitating disease spina bifida.

“Therefore the knowledge, which is becoming more apparent and readily available, that certain foods contain substances that help prevent such diseases and contribute to overall better health and longer lifespan, is incredibly exciting.”

For the food industry, there are plenty of possibilities to be found in these functional ingredients, according to DSN Nutritional Products’ business manager for human health and nutrition, Richard Dandan.

The benefits for both manufacturers and consumers when it comes to using super-ingredients, besides the obvious associated health properties, is the possibility of standing out on crowded supermarket shelves.

“When it comes to the beverage market, for example, where some manufacturers have already launched drinks with added vitamins, or other functional properties, my thinking is that manufacturers are finding ingredients that can make them different from the others,” said Dandan.

“Some of our ingredients are very flexible in terms of additions to food products. For instance, the green tea extract that we have is a functional addition, not just because of its health properties, but also because, for many consumers who don’t like the bitter taste of green tea, the benefits can be had without the taste.

“There is also no discolouration in the product, so it fits well with various applications in food. On the part of the consumers, they have the healthy benefit of this ingredient without any alteration of what they normally like in the products. We try to eliminate the negative taste associations, so that consumers can adapt to the use of the super-food products more quickly.”

The current super-face of the super-food trend is the açaí berry, which claims a host of health benefits, including antioxidant properties, Omega fatty acids, dietary fibres, and protein. The antioxidant content in açaí berries is thought to be as much as thirty times greater than red wine, and it is therefore claimed to contribute to better health, by slowing the ageing process and reducing the risks of stroke.

Super-far away

While the use of the açaí berry has been enthusiastically embraced, consumers and manufacturers are a lot more careful when it comes to further development of the super trend, including that of GM ingredients.

“The creation of GM foods is complicated. On the one hand, finding a gene that can cure disease or prevent a malady, and putting that gene into a food that is readily eaten, easily grown, and highly accessible, sounds like the answer we’ve been looking for. However messing around with genes is far more tricky than this,” said Reznick.

“Creating preventative medicines out of food by modifying their genetic makeup, is not as simple as it sounds. Scientists are nowhere near to a complete understanding what each gene does, and more importantly, how one gene on one chromosome interacts with another.

“At each step there is a long list of possible modifications, which occur within a cell, that alters their regulations or functions. These modifications are cell specific and so, if you find a beneficial gene in one organism, transfer it into another (such as a vegetable), the modifications occurring in the original organism may differ to the new host of this gene.

“This could either impact on the gene’s function or make it something altogether new, with potentially adverse effects. Because of these complications, the wonderland of GM foods is probably many years away.”

Agreeing with this assessment are claims by a CSIRO former scientist, Dr Maarten Stapper, who recently explained the reasons that so few GM super-foods have reached <[lb]>preliminary stages, with none released for public use.

“The GM industry has been making promises for thirty years on better food, but at the moment GM food released is still modified only at a production level for herbicide tolerance, and insect and disease resistance.”

While the limitations on super-foods, and our expectations of what they can deliver, are still quite separate, there are certainly many exciting possibilities for manufacturers in opening up their facilities to more functional ingredients.

What manufacturers need to consider, however, is whether the ingredients they are drawn to are actually permitted for use in Australia. “It’s pointless to develop a product that can not be sold in Australia. In this country there are very strict rules and regulations as far as adding additional ingredients to foods, and that is extremely important. In other countries, and other markets, manufacturers can much more easily use these super-ingredients in their finished products,” said Dandan.

“I think manufacturers should be more bold in coming up with new innovations and releasing new products into the market. Australian manufacturers tend to wait to see what their competitors are doing, rather than taking the first step in exploring and adding new ingredients to products. It’s time to take risks and go out on a limb in order for companies to be differentiated, and in order to compete well in the industry.

“I really do hope that manufacturers will consider adding more and more healthy ingredients into their products and I hope that the food industry grows through the possibilities of the new ingredients that are becoming available on the market,” concluded Dandan.

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