Functional foods: good or bad?

Omega-3-rich chicken

FOODplus has produced chicken meat that is rich in omega-3 fats (iStockphoto)

Chicken meat enriched with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Sound fishy to you? Researchers at Adelaide’s FOODplus centre - a joint venture between the University of Adelaide and the Women’s and Children’s Health Research Institute – have developed omega-3 rich chicken meat by changing the type of grain fed to chickens. And because the chickens aren’t fed fish oil, which is the route that other researchers have taken, the flesh doesn’t taste fishy.

Omega-3 is a long-chain polyunsaturated fat, which has a wide range of  potential health benefits, including a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, arthritis, eczema, and fatigue. It’s found in naturally high doses in fish, but Australians are low fish-eaters by nature, put off by the smell and the perceived trickiness of cooking our underwater friends. Omega-3 rich chicken could therefore be a win for the consumer. They would get the benefits of a fish-rich diet, without having to eat fish. So why does FOODplus director Robert Gibson expect omega-3 rich chicken will be a hard sell?

Tarnished reputation

It comes down to the bad reputation of so-called functional foods – which are defined by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) as any food or food component that may provide demonstrated physiological benefits or reduce the risk of chronic diseases above and beyond basic nutritional functions. Put more simply, they are foods that provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition.

First came fortified foods, which are boosted with nutrients to prevent nutritional deficiencies – iron-fortified cereals are an example. Then came functional foods, which claim to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. They come in many guises, two of the most familiar being probiotic-rich milk and yoghurt that help balance good and bad bacteria in the digestive tract, and plant sterols that have been shown to reduce cholesterol and are added to margarine. Calcium boosting chewing gum is another, more unusual, example.

Some do have preventative properties. But others flout misleading claims. We’re either gullible enough to buy them, sceptical enough to avoid them, or healthy enough eaters to live without them whether they’re legitimate or not. But many of us are also offended by the fact that manufacturers take perfectly healthy food, process the hell out of it, remove every last trace of nutritional value, and then add nutrients back in at a later date.

The classic example is white bread, which became a favoured pantry staple despite being nutritionally worthless. It is now fortified with vitamins and fibre, which were present in the original grains. But we wouldn’t need to fortify processed foods with missing nutrients if they hadn’t been obliterated during processing. And that’s what leaves a sour taste in many consumers’ mouths.

At the source

The FOODplus team is taking a different approach. They’re investigating the functionality of whole foods at the source. Rather than putting a nutrient back in, they’re growing foodstuff with additional nutritional benefit in the first place. Professor Gibson says:

We’re identifying the grains that are needed for specific purpose, like if we want low-glycemic bread with lots of fibre then we will develop a low-glycemic grain in the first place.

The university has developed a number of grains through selective breeding (not genetic modification) with additional nutritional value, including a high-amylose wheat with low-glycemic index value – which means it releases glucose more gradually into the bloodstream rather than releasing a sugar hit.

High-lutein wheat, which is naturally yellow, is another example. Lutein is an anti-oxidant that protects the eye against macular degeneration, which causes visual impairment. The high-lutein wheat could replace that which is traditionally used to make noodles, most of which are dyed yellow to make them more appealing to customers. Professor Gibson says:

What we want to do is change that by taking the yellow dye out of the noodles and having a natural yellow ingredient which can protect the eyes against macular degeneration.

You then have a win-win situation … the potential of health benefits on the one hand and the savings in processing costs.

Another grain in the centre’s portfolio produces durum wheat, which makes excellent pastry using half the usual amount of fat. Professor Gibson says:

With a single stroke we can change the kind of diet that Australians eat and therefore get direct health benefits.

Healthy eating

But shouldn’t we just eat a healthier diet in the first place? Cut out the pastries and pies rather than eating plant-sterol rich margarine to lower our bad cholesterol.

Clearly, as a population, we’re not capable of that – for a variety of reasons. An ageing population and rising healthcare costs is further justification for functional foods. Growing pressure on global food supplies is another. Wouldn’t it be better to make sure that the food produced had top nutritional value at the outset, particularly as supplies come under threat?

But it’s important to remember that not all functional foods are created equal. Some are born of foodstuff that has been raped of any nutritional value whatsoever, then bolstered with nutrients and sold as some kind of super-food. Then there is foodstuff that aims to be functional from the outset. What would you prefer?

Commercial gains

The FOODplus team is seeking commerical partners to take its omega-3 rich chicken to the next level and prove it is commerically viable on a large scale. (There is big money in functional foods, which PWC estimated would to be worth $US128 billion globally by 2013). If it is commercially viable, then the customer will be the next hurdle.  Professor Gibson is trying to not only shake off the bad reputation of functional foods, he’s trying to shake off the name completely. He says:

I just want to call it food. Real food, for real people. I don’t want to have any more of these gadgetry names.

So what do you think about functional foods? Gimmicks and gadgetry? Or whole foods, with additional functionality?

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Black angus calves (iStockphoto.com)

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2 Comments

Filed under Food Issues

2 responses to “Functional foods: good or bad?

  1. Mel

    Functional foods are a tricky product, especially for people with allergies.. when it becomes problematic to eat breakfast at a cafe as they might be using Omega 3 eggs or bread which has shellfish added for instance, it can be life threatening and not something that is often thought about for many upset stomachs, hives etc that occur.

    However in this instance, if it is being added without an additive as such, and is a mechanism of the growth of the product then why not boost the nutrient value of a food.

    I think we could just eat better, more balanced diets.. but I might be old fashioned! =)

    Nice article!

    • Thanks for your comments, Mel. I hadn’t thought about the impact functional foods could have on people with allergies! It shows how complex the food web is becoming. I guess, there are lots of shades of grey … the good, the bad, and the plain ugly functional foods. I’m generally quite sceptical about claims made about food – but i’m impressed with what the FoodPlus team is doing. It’s the big manufacturers i don’t trust … or the supermarkets … or the spin-doctors …

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