Monday, June 7, 2010

The Real Meaning of Functional Foods

Malaysian biotechnology sector is flooded with health supplement companies. They are lucky to be clustered as “biotech company” as Malaysia has a broad definition of biotechnology. And also health supplement does not go through stringent safety procedures and also of the public perception that anything natural is “safe”. Some of them who label themselves as “high-end” biotech company simply buy the technology from foreign companies and hold the patent rights.

In this post, I would like to share a recent report by
Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology entitled, “Application of Biotechnology for Functional Foods”. This report adopts the following definition for functional foods – Foods that provides health benefits beyond basic nutrition.

The original concept of functional foods originated in Japan from its development of a special seal to denote Foods for Specified Health Use (FOSHU). More than 270 foods have FOSHU status in Japan. Foods qualify as “functional foods” because they contain non-essential substances with potential health benefits. Examples of the diverse foods and their bioactive substances that are considered “functional foods” are: psyllium seeds (soluble fiber), soy foods (isoflavones), cranberry juice (proanthocyanidins), purple grape juice (resveratrol), tomatoes (lycopene), and green tea (catechins).

With the advanced in modern biotechnology, bioactive compounds in foods can be added or increased. Examples are oils that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, tomatoes rich in lycopene, and cassava rich in iron, vitamin or protein.

Oils alone can be modified in many ways to enhance it health benefits and reduce disease-causing factors. The following are some examples where traditional plant breeding cannot be employed:

· Reduce saturated fatty acid content for “heart-healthy” oils
· Increase saturated fatty acids for greater stability in processing and frying
· Increase oleic acid in food oils for food manufacturing
· Reduce alpha-linolenic acid for improved stability in food processing
· Introduce various omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids including long-chain forms
· Enhance the availability of novel fatty acids, e.g., gamma-linoleic acid

Increasing the protein content of some staple food is another area under research. Crops that are being studied are cassava, corn and potato. Cassava is a staple food for some 500 million people in tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world, cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz), also known as yucca or manioc, thrives in marginal lands having little rain and nutrient-poor soils. It is widely consumed in Africa, and parts of Asia and South America. Corn, although is rich in protein, it lacks lysine and tryptophan. Corn is a predominantly consumed as staple food in Latin America and Africa. Potato is a dietary staple throughout parts of Asia, Africa, and South America and it contains about 2% protein and 0.1% fat. Various international institutes are working on these crops to increase its protein content.

A crop closer to home is rice. Almost half the world’s population eats rice (Oryza sativa L.), at least once a day according to International Rice Research Institute. Rice is the staple food among the world’s poor, especially in Asia and parts of Africa and South America. It is the primary source of energy and nutrition for millions. Thus, improving the nutritional quality of rice could potentially improve the nutritional status of nearly half the world’s population, particularly its children. Commodity rice contains about 7% protein. The most limiting amino acid in rice is lysine. Efforts to increase the nutritional value of rice target protein content and quality along with key nutrients often deficient in rice-eating populations, such as vitamin A and iron.

This report also discusses various other nutrients such as Vitamin E, Vitamin C, folic acid, antioxidants, iron, zinc, selenium, and phytonutrients among others. Enhancing food with these nutrients will have great impact on public health. With the rising of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure, functional foods can reverse some of the disease trends. However, not all this foods will be available at the supermarket shelves as they have go through vigorous regulatory procedures.

Coming back to Malaysia, a rice variety with low hyperglycaemic index would be a boon for us. Any takers?

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

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