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Functional food research means you can have it both ways

by Archives November 23, 2005

WINNIPEG (CUP) — In an age of expanding waistlines, Dr. Peter Jones and the Richardson Centre are out to change the way you eat.

And people are listening: Jones, the director of the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Neutraceuticals, delivered the second speech of the “Get to know research at your University” speaker series to a packed boardroom.

The University of Manitoba will soon be home to the Richardson Centre, one of the country’s largest functional foods research facilities for this exciting and growing field.

Jones defined functional foods as conventional foods, consumed as part of a normal diet, which have health benefits beyond basic nutrition. This growing field includes research on the health benefits of food chemicals such as Omega-3 fatty acids, soy protein and plant sterols, which all have known health benefits.

He attributed rising interest in the field of functional foods research to greater consumer awareness of the relationship between overall health and diet choices, changes in food laws that lead to connections between diet and certain types of disease as well as the high costs of health care.

He also pointed out the difference between functional foods and neutraceuticals and natural health products.

“A natural health product is . . . sold for the purpose of treating disease, as well as preventing it, while functional foods and neutraceuticals are really about protection.”

Improved health is not all there is to gain from the development of functional foods. “One can argue that functional foods is a concept that has promulgated and originated in the food companies . . . it’s a new way to make a bigger market share,” said Jones.

Before the potential of market share can be harvested, products must undergo testing, which is regulated differently than pharmaceuticals.

“Unless a product is safe, you really don’t even want to get out of the gate with it. Which isn’t to say it has to be 100 per cent risk free, but the risk-benefit ratio has to be highly positive in order to start the program,” Jones said.

“Efficacy is one of the biggest troublemakers we have in this industry. We’re seeing again and again occurrences of products that have lots of study behind them . . . but in the final careful analysis, they don’t appear to work,” he added.

Jones pointed to institutions like the Richardson Centre as a very important component of the research process. He noted that the whole process rests on the consumer spending more money on premium products.

Health claims are hot button questions in this field. Jones pointed to an example of a yogurt that is advertised to contain Omega-3, though it only contains 53 milligrams of the substance. “You would probably have to consume 10 of these yogurts to derive any benefit from them,” he said. “Here we have to be really careful about whether we’re misleading the public.

One focus of the Richardson Centre is to develop products from western Canada in order to bolster the industry and agriculture. “We’re trying to take a commodity and add value,” said Jones.

The centre has the ability to do animal testing, human testing and cell-biology testing. The centre will collaborate with regional and national centres such as the Alberta Research Council, the National Research Council of Canada and the Canadian International Grains Institute.

Jones is a graduate of the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto, and has held research positions at McGill University and at the University of Chicago. He came to the University of Manitoba this fall, holding professorships in both the department of food science and the department of human nutritional sciences, as well as the post of director for the new Richardson Centre and a Canada Research Chair.

The presentation was well-received by the audience members, many of whom stayed to partake in some prepared examples of functional foods, including cookies baked with algae.

Nadia Evans came to the presentation wondering what functional foods really were and was satisfied with what she learned. It made her “more thoughtful about the amount of actual substance that products claim.” She came to the presentation as a consumer, having heard about the presentation from flyers distributed at Organza food market.

Brenda Reinhardt found that the presentation made her “more aware while reading labels on items,” as well as making her more selective in her purchasing.

This is a sentiment echoed by Evans, who said she was “thrilled that this is going on at the U of M, that we might be able to improve markets for our farmers and foods.”

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