Better is a dinner of herbs…

We all know what we put into our bodies affects our well-being, but is the UK ready for the latest US and Japanese trend – functional foods?

SBHD: We all know what we put into our bodies affects our well-being, but is the UK ready for the latest US and Japanese trend – functional foods?

Before I sat down to write this column, I regulated my cholesterol level, topped up my intake of easy-to-absorb folic acid and even remembered to balance my body’s vital supply of intestinal microflora.

Or for those of you not versed in the new language of functional food – aka pharmifood, drug food, nutriceuticals or plain old mood food – I ate a tuna sandwich and a pot of live yoghurt.

For a generation brought up on the apple-a-day school of preventive medicine, the notion that we can eat our way to fitness sounds uncontroversial. But to the disciples of pharmifood, what we eat has a far greater significance in the quest for better human health. They claim that by choosing and balancing our intake of food more carefully, we can not only treat the illnesses of today – urinary infections, colds and flu – but even battle against the big guns such as cancer and heart disease.

In Japan and parts of the US, where drug food is already well-established, a typical “healthy” menu might include a mood-enhancing cereal to start the day, a cancer-cheating burger for lunch and a blood pressure-reducing casserole for dinner – washed down with an obligatory anti-ageing drink.

Infertile women already have access to a zinc-enriched bedtime drink which, it is claimed, can “build reproductive capacity”. Meanwhile, impotent men swallow a (wholly unregulated) soft drink laced with extracts of chest-thumping rhino horn.

It would be easy to dismiss these new drug foods as yet another unproven fad by health extremists, but with the functional foods market now set to exceed $9bn (£6bn) in the US by the end of the year – and far more in Japan, where such foods are sold via street corner vending machines – the UK food industry can’t help but sit up and take notice.

Last week, the Leatherhead Food Research Association held a one-day conference on international developments in food and drink. Among the important innovations identified by Leatherhead market intelligence manager Moira Hilliam were nutriceuticals, which she argued were already taking emphasis away from other “healthy” products such as “low” and “light” foods.

Defining functional foods as “everyday food and drink products with specific health benefits above normal nutrition”, she argued that while added fibre had been the first significant development in the market – All Bran must surely be the oldest functional food in the UK – attention has now switched to the use of antioxidant vitamins A, C and E and minerals such as iron, calcium and magnesium.

The use of acidophilus and bifidus cultures – said to benefit the human gut – in yoghurt and other dairy products has made an impact internationally. However, the wider use of omega-3 oils – said to ward off heart disease and strokes – is still largely confined to Japan. (Although added-fibre drinks have a long history in Japan, it is only in recent months that they have become popular in Europe.)

In the UK, MD Foods was first into the mood-food market with its Fybor chilled orange juice, while SmithKline Beecham’s new Ribena Juice and Fibre drink has expanded the market.

European dairy and confectionery manufacturers continue to experiment with the use of so-called probiotic cultures such as bifidus.

But the latest buzzword is the unpronounceable oligosaccharides. As one of Japan’s leading functional foods, this growth promoter of beneficial gut bacteria is already widespread in Japanese drinks, confectionery, biscuits, cakes, ice-cream, noodles and breakfast cereals.

The use of both oligosaccharides – and fish oils – is now spreading to Europe.

While the history of mood food is both long and distinguished – the ancient Chinese prescribed sweet potatoes, rich in vitamins A, C and B6, for depression – the development of an entirely new language of food-medicine is all too easy to exploit. In the view of consumer watchdogs such as the Food Commission, the development of sports drinks, for example, can be attributed more to clever marketing than genuine scientific breakthroughs.

While pseudo-scientific terms such as hypotonic, hypertonic and isotonic make great advertising copy, the Commission insists these highly-priced drinks do little more to restore body salts lost through exercise than good old tap-water.

In Japan, where functional foods were first marketed in the Eighties, the health claims of many products are at the very least imaginative. One milk drink that claimed to help women grow larger breasts enjoyed short-lived popularity, as did a nut and seed bar which promised a greater sperm count for sub-fertile men.

But even in Japan there are rules. The Japanese government introduced a functional foods approval system back in 1991, but so far it has only granted approval to 18 products.

The business forecaster Faith Popcorn predicts “daily doses of soups containing anti-oxidant beta-carotenes” – claimed to reduce the risk of lung, breast, cervical and stomach cancers – will make an impact in the future.

She also foresees cookies with herbs to ease asthma, desserts with bio-active extracts to cure migraine and even “his-and-her” food. The latter could include curries laced with ginseng for the burnt-out executive husband and an evening primrose, oil-based salad for the wife’s “female” problems.

In Britain, there is no statutory definition of functional foods, says the Ministry of Agriculture. However, the law does prohibit any foodstuff from claiming to prevent, treat or cure a medical condition unless it also holds a medicines’ licence.

Of course it can be argued that we in Britain are no strangers to pharmifoods. Calcium-enriched white bread has featured in our shopping baskets since the Forties, fortified cereals for at least the past 30 years. Yet the path from mere “health” food to full-blown functional food, which claims to treat or ward off serious disease as well, will not be easy, however desirable it may be.

US Foundation for Innovation in Medicine chairman Dr Stephen DeFelice coined the term “nutriceutical”. He believes: “Nature has provided us with plants and natural foods that give protection against serious diseases. To label nutriceuticals simply as a cynical marketing device is to ignore the fact that these foods might truly save lives.”

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