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Functional Foods and PhytochemicalsFunctional Foods and Phytochemicals

July 1, 1999

7 Min Read
Functional Foods and Phytochemicals

Food Product Design

Functional Foods and Phytochemicals
July 1999 -- Cover Story Plus

By: Christine Homsey
Contributing Editor

  Phytochemicals are poised to play a significant role in what we now call functional foods, nutraceuticals, or even designer foods. Because the functional-food category is not defined legally in the United States, what precisely constitutes a functional food is open to interpretation. A simple, working definition might be "a food or food ingredient that provides a health benefit beyond that of basic nutrition." Therefore, a functional food could be processed fare that has been supplemented with non-traditional ingredients, such as medicinal herbs or phytochemical concentrates. Bioengineered produce with enhanced levels of desirable phytochemicals would also fall into this category, as would the plain old fruits and vegetables we've always known.Phytochemical ingredients  Phytochemical-containing ingredients can have noticeable functional, color or flavor effects on a food ingredient or product, in addition to their beneficial nutritional properties. For example, limonoid glucosides, found in the seeds, pulp and other tissues of citrus fruits, indirectly reduce the bitterness of citrus juice. In the case of grape-skin extract, in addition to adding beneficial phenolic compounds to the diet, it can also impart a beautiful purple hue to beverages.  The use of phytochemicals in concentrated or extracted form is, however, in most cases still at an early stage. Most of these substances are still ingested as food in commodity form, such as simple fruit and vegetable products. "We isolated lycopene about three years ago, before all of the hoopla," says Ginny Bank, technical product manager for Hauser Inc., Boulder, CO. "However, lycopene is not approved by the FDA as a food additive, so the food industry was not only not interested, but it was (and still is) impossible to add pure lycopene into a food product. You can add 'tomato extract high in lycopene,' but not a purified compound."  Bank feels that other obstacles may limit the use phytochemical concentrates in mainstream foods as well. "Isolating these compounds is very expensive and complicated," she points out. "Also, the food industry may be getting into phytochemicals, but what about the public?" Indeed, when few consumers are well-versed in basic nutrition, communicating phytochemical benefits may be difficult. Bank also predicts that while some of these substances may become more prevalent in beverages, they may not catch on just yet in other food categories.  Other companies are aggressively pursuing the food market. Fortitech, Schenectady, NY, has seen increased requests for phytochemical ingredients since the early part of 1997. Ram Chaudhari, Ph.D., director of R&D, QA and technical support, says that food companies are demanding herbs and phytonutrients such as lycopene, lutein and isoflavones for inclusion in nutrient blends.  Some companies, rather than deliberately developing products for their phytochemical content or fortifying products with phytochemical concentrates, have chosen to play up the benefits of existing products. For example, Pittsburgh-based H.J. Heinz Company has embarked on a consumer-education campaign that highlights the lycopene content of tomato products such as ketchup.Functional food factors  Why are nutraceuticals, including those with significant amounts of phytochemicals, gaining in popularity with consumers? Several factors have contributed to the growth of these foods:  Time: People feel that their lives are getting more and more hectic, and consider convenient, healthful foods a time-saver. Instead of thinking about a balanced diet, they want food products to provide easier alternatives.  Performance enhancement/fitness: Consumers who want sufficient energy and strength for sports and their daily lives are driving sales of performance-enhancing drinks and snack bars. Also, people are looking to foods, beverages and supplements to help them reduce tension and stress; improve mental acuity; protect eyesight; and boost sexual function.  Alternative medicine: Traditional Western medicine has not provided consumers with all the answers they need for disease treatment and prevention. Many prefer to take charge of their own health by purchasing over-the-counter foods, supplements and remedies.  Age: As baby boomers continue to get their retirement plans in order, interest in staying healthy as they age will continue to increase.  Cost of health care: Doctors' fees and insurance premiums continue to rise, and being sick is costly to both individuals and society. Preventative nutrition is one form of keeping costs contained.  Crop genetics: Advances in biotechnology are making it possible for plants to contain higher levels of desirable nutrients and phytochemicals.Phytochemical futures  There's much to learn about the thousands of phytochemicals in the natural world, and many researchers believe that food is still the best way to ingest these health-promoting compounds. Simply relying on dietary supplements may be a one-dimensional approach, and if consumers are not encouraged to consume large amounts of fruits and vegetables, they may be missing the nutritional boat. Says Clare Hasler, Ph.D., executive director of the Functional Foods for Health Program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, "One of the benefits of eating foods rather than consuming dietary supplements is that there are so very many things in foods that we just haven't even studied to any great extent yet that could prove to be the bullet for cancer-risk reduction."  Because an exact definition of a functional food has not been agreed upon, it is difficult to put an accurate price tag on the market value of these products. Some recent estimates suggest a global market value upwards of $65 billion. The impact on consumer well-being and health-care costs are even more difficult to quantify, although the American Cancer Society estimates that as many as one out of every three cancers is diet-related.  Despite exhortations from nutritionists, researchers and the U.S. government, however, Americans are simply not eating enough produce and whole-grain products. Although a well-balanced diet containing fruits and vegetables could theoretically provide all, or most of, the phytochemicals purported to have health benefits, pressed-for-time consumers may increasingly welcome these substances packaged in convenient forms such as snacks and beverages. Given their potential, phytochemicals are certainly a category worth watching. The Product Developer's Checklist When developing products with phytochemical ingredients, here are some points to ponder: Benefits
What is the phytochemical purported to do, and how well has it been researched?Usage
How much should be used in a food product, especially in the case of phytochemical concentrates? Most of these newly hyped compounds do not have a recommended daily intake (RDI). Are there any epidemiological, animal or clinical studies that suggest a guideline? Since Americans do have a tendency to overdo things, it can be a challenge to determine an appropriate dosage and be sure that they are not getting too much or too little of a good thing.Potency
Some phytocompounds are not as stable as others, and potency may vary depending on the processing, botanical source, and manufacturer. Weather, soil conditions, and geographic location will also influence quality. Be sure to check what level of the phytonutrient the supplier guarantees.Composition
In what proportions do the phytochemicals exist? For example, when choosing a soy concentrate, what is the ratio of genistein to daidzein? Also, are the compounds in glycoside or aglycone form (as in the case of isoflavones and limonoids)?Drug Interactions
Will some of these substances interact with prescription or over-the-counter drugs? In many cases, researchers are not sure.Functional Issues
Does the phytoingredient add viscosity? Is it pH sensitive? Hygroscopic? Will it react adversely with other ingredients during processing or over time?Solubility
Does the ingredient need to be completely soluble, as in a clear beverage? Is it soluble in water or oil, and will it be miscible with the phases of your product? Will an emulsifier or stabilizer be necessary?Flavor and Odor
Is the ingredient bland in flavor? Does it need to be? Using strongly flavored ingredients such as garlic can be a challenge in applications where its sulfury characteristics are undesirable and difficult to mask.Storage and Shelf Life
How long can the product be stored and still retain most of its potency? Does it need to be removed from heat, light, or oxygen? Will it pick up moisture?Color
Does the phytoingredient add color to your system, as in the case of anthocyanins or carotenoids? Over which pHs? If color is not desired, is a colorless form available? Will a colorless form still have the positive health benefits of the full-color product?Regulatory Issues
Does the ingredient have GRAS or food-additive status? Can you label your product as a conventional food, or is it a dietary supplement? If you plan to make some type of health or "structure-function" claim, are you sure that it is legal? Back to top

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