Functional Foods

Functional foods usually refer to foods containing significant levels of biologically active components that impart health benefits beyond basic nutrition. These components are often known as phytochemicals—meaning plant chemicals. Several terms are used to describe the many natural products currently being developed for health benefit. These include nutraceutical, functional food, pharmafood, designer food, vitafood, phytochemical, and foodaceutical. Functional food may be the most internationally recognized term for the category of enhanced foods with potentially strong preventive or therapeutic properties and is used widely in Japan and Europe. In North America, the terms functional food and nutraceutical have been used interchangeably, and a number of definitions of what are included under these all-encompassing headings have been advanced. According to Health Canada, a functional food is similar in appearance to conventional food, is consumed as part of the usual diet, and has demonstrated physiological benefits and/or reduces the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions. A nutraceutical is a product produced from foods but sold in pills, powders (potions), and other medicinal forms not generally associated with food and demonstrated to have a physiological benefit or provides protection against chronic disease (1).

The following statement provides the definition for functional food endorsed by the European expert committee organized by the International Life Science Institute (LSI): "A food can be regarded as functional if it is adequately demonstrated to beneficially affect one or more target functions in the body, beyond normal nutritional effects, in a way which is relevant to either the state of well being and health and/or the reduction of the risk of a disease." Definitions are also based on, and relevant for, target groups. In Germany, for example, functional foods are targeted for the general population, while the term nutra-ceuticals is used for products aimed at specific age categories, and medical foods is the term for products designed for patients (2). Currently in Japan, the functional foods approved as Foods for Specified Health Use (FOSHU) regulation established in 1991 by the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare are defined as everyday foodstuffs expected to have a specific effect on health due to relevant constituent(s). This regulation allows claims regarding the foods' beneficial effect on health.

In the United States, the movement toward functional foods began during the late 1970s when Lee Wattenberg of the University of Minnesota extolled the health benefits of components of crucifers and cabbage. As the next step, the National Academy of Sciences' report on "Diet and Cancer" in 1982 not only made a connection between fat and fiber in the diet but also nonnutritive components that might be important in the diet. The term designer foods coined by Herbert F. Pierson, Jr., in 1989, was publicized in the popular press in the United States several years ago when the National Cancer Institute (NCI) announced a $20 million five-year research program to study the anticarcinogenic properties of components of citrus, flax, aged garlic extract, licorice extract, soybean meal, and umbelliferous vegetable juice beverage. In 1989, because of the regulatory confu-

sion concerning foods versus drugs, Stephen L. DeFelice, chair of the Foundation for Innovation in Medicine, introduced the term nutraceuticals to include isolated nutrients, dietary supplements, genetically engineered foods, and herbal products. The term nutraceuticals has received considerable press and carries a high-tech image that fits comfortably with pharmaceutical companies.

The concept of functional foods is based on evidence that certain vegetables, herbs, fruit, and grains naturally rich in various phytochemicals have a protective effect against diseases such as cancer. There are at least 14 classes of phytochemicals known or believed to possess cancer-preventive properties (3). These include sulfides, phytates, flavonoids, glucarates, carotenoids, coumarins, monoter-penes, triterpenes, lignans, phenolic acids, indoles, iso-thiocyanates, phthalides, and polyacetylenes. A variety of these phytochemicals are abundantly present in garlic, green tea, soybeans, cereal grains, licorice roots, flaxseed, and plants from the cruciferous, umbelliferous, citrus, so-lanaceous, and cucurbitaceous family (Table 1).

Increased intakes of nonnutrient phytochemicals with potential health benefits can be improved by increased intake of a food rich in products such as garlic extract; by conventional plant breeding to increase the concentration in a crop; through biotechnology; by selective processing, such as milling and extraction, to enhance the concentration of one or more chemicals in a food; or by adding a phytochemical to a food. Food processing and preparation procedures also affect the physiological consequences of food. Fermented products, including dairy products, have long been recognized to alter gastrointestinal flora and even reduce circulating cholesterol. While heating tomatoes may improve lycopene availability and thus improve its antioxidant potential, heating of unpeeled garlic reduces its anticancer potential. Ingestion of functional foods represents an effective strategy to maximize health and reduce the risk of diseases. Interest in the health benefits of foods is propelled by rising health care costs, legislative changes (ie, the Nutritional Labelling and Education Act [NLEA] and Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act [DSHEA]) that permit claims for foods and associated components, and by new and exciting scientific discoveries. Functional food is one of today's most prevalent trends for food product development. According to Datamonitor, Inc., a global market research firm, the U.S. market for nutraceuticals has grown from $11 billion to $16.7 billion, representing a growth of 10.9% over the past four years. The firm's survey, "U.S. Nutraceuticals 1997," found that a general trend toward healthy eating (represented by low-fat, low-calorie foods) has shifted toward more active prevention of disease and maintenance of health.

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