Comfort foods — steaming oatmeal, spaghetti with tomato sauce, roast beef with garlic potatoes — are good not only for the soul, but also the heart and immune system.
Oatmeal contains beta glucan fibers that reduce cholesterol; lycopene in spaghetti sauce may reduce the risk of prostate cancer; psyllium fibers in pasta may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease; the CLA in beef could reduce some tumors and body fat; garlic contains diallyl sulfide, which lowers LDL cholesterol.
The food industry calls such products and ingredients nutraceuticals or functional foods. “If you ask me, all foods are functional,” says Charan Wadhawan, AURI food scientist. “It really goes back to the basics — eating whole foods in moderation. But some foods may be more beneficial than others.”
Lisa Gjersvik, AURI project director in Waseca, says medicinal food is a major emerging opportunity in value-added agriculture. The current U.S. nutraceutical market is $16.7 billion and is expected to grow to $28 billion by 2006.
When a study confirms, or at least suggests, that a food component may treat or prevent disease, food companies quickly respond.
A California wine maker has capitalized on the 1979 “French Paradox” report that linked wine consumption to lower rates of heart disease, attributed to phenols in grape skin. A subsidiary is marketing grape extracts to companies that make herbal supplements, food products and beverages.
The Fluid Milk Strategic Thinking Initiative, funded nationally by dairy producers and processors, is looking at 12 ingredients that could be added to milk, including beta glucans for heart health, glucosamine for joints, lutein for vision, S-adenosyl-L-methionine to elevate mood, and green tea extracts rich in antioxidants.
Shifting to food-meds
The Hartman Group, a leading market research firm, says rising interest in medicinal foods reflects a shift in Americans’ consciousness, heightened by September 11. The firm’s report, “The Wellness Trends in 2002,” found that people are putting family and wellness above hectic daily routines. Many interviewed said they were frustrated with the U.S. healthcare system, wanted more control over their health, were concerned about aging, or had gone through life-transforming experiences such as cancer. “Dietary supplements … (allow) them a way of self-managing their own health … giving them a sense of empowerment,” the report states.
The Hartman Group finds 13 percent of U.S. households score high on wellness indicators, including regular exercise, healthy eating, using supplements and buying organic and natural foods. The biggest group, 62 percent, score in the mid range, and 24 percent rate low. The findings show the market for wellness products and services is vast, the report says.
Last year, a study of consumer attitudes toward functional foods by the International Food Information Council showed 89 percent of Americans believe they have at least moderate control over their health and 93 percent believe that some foods have health benefits that go beyond basic nutrition; almost 62 percent are incorporating at least one food for health benefits.
Other economic realities could increase the popularity of nutraceuticals. Gregg Wurster, a Duke University graduate student, predicts that as health insurance costs continue to rise, consumers will pay higher co-pays for drugs. Nutraceuticals will present a better economic value to those consumers than they did in the past. “They will become more conscious of ways to prevent those expenses,” he writes in the Nutraceutical World magazine, September 2002.
Research is booming
Nutraceuticals were defined in 1994 by the Institute of Medicine’s food and nutrition board as “any food or food ingredient that may provide a health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains.” The main focus has been on phytochemicals — biologically active chemicals such as glucosinolates in cruciferous vegetables (cole crops), lycopene in tomatoes, limonoids in citrus fruits, lignans in flaxseed and catechins in tea — all purported cancer fighters.
The fastest growing nutraceutical market is weight-loss products, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. With more than 120 million overweight Americans and 17 million diabetics, demand is growing for foods or supplements that increase metabolism, suppress or satiate appetite, and control blood sugar.
While many claims have not been replicated in clinical trials, research facilities are going up around the country to study the medicinal qualities of food components, such as the Nutraceuticals Institute, a partnership between Rutgers University, St. Joseph’s University and the State University of New Jersey.
The University of Manitoba in Canada is establishing a $25 million Research and Development Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals to study prairie crops such as oats, wheat, buckwheat, canola, flax and hemp. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing is designing a program to “implement well-designed, scientifically rigorous clinical investigations of botanical medicines and dietary supplements to determine their safety and use in treating illnesses,” according to the Center’s Web site.
AURI recently launched a Functional Foods Initiative to look at the medicinal qualities of locally-grown grains, beans and oilseed crops. The initiative will be led by Wadhawan and Michael Sparby, AURI project director in Morris.
Drugs from the field
Nutraceuticals are not the same as pharmaceuticals, such as plant-derived proteins for vaccines and medical treatments. Pharmaceuticals are designed specifically for medical use under a physician’s supervision, and are subject to FDA approval.
There are 400 plant-based drugs under development worldwide, according to a National Corn Growers Association study. A January 2002 article in Top Producer magazine reports: “estimates of crop acres needed to serve this new drug market range from ‘tens of thousands’ to as many as one million.” Nevertheless, planting genetically-engineered crops for drug harvesting is controversial because of concerns over pollen drift and genetic contamination of traditional crops.
Nutraceuticals, which do not pose an environmental hazard, may be easier and faster to market. Farmers could gain from raising specialty crops such as garlic, cranberries and chicory with disease-fighting properties. Numerous new businesses in Minnesota are taking advantage of promising new markets for medicinal foods.