Adding nutrients to foods will help us live better and longer, writes DANYLO HAWALESHKA

July 18 2005


Adding nutrients to foods will help us live better and longer, writes DANYLO HAWALESHKA

July 18 2005



Adding nutrients to foods will help us live better and longer, writes DANYLO HAWALESHKA

RANDY FILBY makes sandwiches to die for. Fresh ingredients—a pox on anything frozen—and an emphasis on homestyle preparations have earned his tiny eatery, the Garage, a reputation as one of Toronto’s top vegetarian restaurants. This my-body-is-a-temple sandwich emporium makes one concession to the bottom line—selling those popular cans of caffeinated sugar water with a high profit margin, a.k.a. Coke and other pops with less than stellar nutritional numbers. But Filby offers his customers an alternative: fruit juices spiked with holistic blends of, for instance, echinacea, ginko biloba and ginseng. These beverages by Smart (fa) of Burlington, Ont., now account for a fifth of his drink sales. “Customers are concerned about what they’re putting into their systems,” says Filby. “I want to offer a healthy alternative.”

Smart (fa) is just one player in a huge new business trend—foods and drinks with special qualities designed to appeal to healthconscious consumers. A grassroots startup in Toronto in 1996, it’s now a major North American distributor of trendy drinks. All across the food industry, from fledgling firms to giant conglomerates, companies are finding new ways to cook up

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increasingly exotic—and supposedly healthful—things to feed us. They’re hoping consumer unease about genetically modified Frankenfood, mad cow disease, irradiation and bovine growth hormones will drive a new market in health-oriented foods. But are these new additive-laden “superfoods” the nutritional nirvana their proponents claim them to be, or are they simply another marketing ploy?

Within the industry, they’re known as “functional foods,” edibles enhanced with various substances that supposedly boost the original food’s basic nutritional value and—it is hoped—reduce the consumer’s risk of chronic disease. Then there are the “nutraceuticals,” healthful nutrients isolated from, say, plant or marine sources and sold as pills and capsules, or as ingredients to make a food “functional.” The global market for functional foods, nutraceuticals and natural health products is currently worth an estimated US$70 billion a year, according to the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals at the University of Manitoba. And it’s just taking off. The centre expects that number to explode to as much US$300 billion in just five years.

According to Bruce Fiolub, a professor in the department of human biology and

nutritional sciences at the University of Guelph in Ontario, a brave new world of science-enhanced eating is just around the corner. A diet augmented by a growing body of laboratory know-how, he says, could save lives and billions of dollars in health care costs by preventing disease. And the change to our food would be imperceptible to finicky palates. “F could have a sausage that lowered

DHA Omega-3

Supports normal development

cholesterol because of the plant sterols and the fibre, lowered the triglycerides because of the omega-3 fatty acids, and tasted like, looked like and acted like a sausage,” says Fiolub. “It’s all very easy to do.”

Already on store shelves from Quebec to the West is William Neilson Ltd.’s Dairy Oh! brand of milk containing DHA, an omega3 fatty acid from fish, which is said to be good for the brain, nervous system and eyes. It costs about 15 per cent more than the regular stuff, but Philippe Meyersohn, vice-president of marketing, says sales have exceeded expectations and Neilson is expanding distribution. The milk comes from cows fed a diet rich in herring meal. Referring to Dairy Oh! as “a natural product,” Meyersohn says he sees nothing odd in feeding ground-up fish to herbivores. “If it was adding weird things, we wouldn’t do it,” he says. “People don’t want you to mess with their milk—that’s a very clear message from the consumer.” You can also buy anything from pancake mixes to salad dressings and even lip balm containing hemp oil with health-promoting omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Cevena

1300 BCE - ENTER THE CHEF: cooking becomes a science when the world’s first known recipe-for marinated spiced carp-is recorded in China

1786 - WATT’S HAPPENING?: the

modern food industry is born with

BY 500,000 BCE - YOU’RE FIRED: food proconstruction off the world’s first steam-driven cessing invented when Homo erectus starts flour mill

cooking dinner 1810 - CAN IT: French chef Nicolas Appert

1500 BCE * OUR DAILY BREAD: Egyptians are patents a method of preventing food from using yeast for dough spoiling by sealing it in a bottle

1865 - BRED IN THE BONE: Gregor Mendel (left) does experiments with cross-bred peas, which lead to the discovery of genetics 1928 - THE BEST THING: Otto Frederick Rohwedder invents the bread sheer


What nature provides has never been enough to satisfy our taste buds

Bioproducts Inc., a small Edmonton start-up, augments nutrition bars with cholesterollowering beta-glucan fibre extracted from barley. And on the vision front, preliminary research at the University of Guelph points to a way of altering eggs to help prevent cataracts and macular degeneration in people. It involves feeding a substance called lutein, derived from marigold plants, to hens to increase the lutein content in egg yolks.

But all this new science raises an enormous potential for, on the one hand, misleading claims by manufacturers and, on the other, rampant skepticism among consumers. That is keeping the pressure solidly on the federal government to maintain its current hard line on product labelling. Federal regulations allow manufacturers to make one of only five generic health claims on their product labels—for instance, that fruits and vegetables can reduce certain forms of cancer, or that diets low in saturated fat can reduce the risk of heart disease. Declaring specifically that nutraceutical X, when added to edible food product Y, helps to lower the risk of disease Z, however, is verboten.

Those rules make it exceedingly difficult to introduce legitimately healthy new foods, argues Valerie Bell, president of the Canadian Health Food Association, which represents over 1,300 suppliers and retailers. Compared to Europe, Asia, and in particular Japan, the world leader, Canada is a laggard in developing its functional-food market, says Bell. “Many of these ingredients have a forest of medical evidence behind them, but the Canadian government has been extremely slow to allow health claims,” she adds. “Even the U.S. government is way ahead of us, and they’re not exactly leading the charge either.”

One way to go, says Guelph’s Holub, would be to transform the grocery store into

T HS>>

1929 - THE ICE AGE: “Ice Fillets” of fish, the world’s first packaged frozen food, developed by federal government scientist Archibald Huntsman, go on sale briefly from Halifax to Winnipeg; American Clarence Birdseye takes the hint and builds an industry

1947 - HEAT OF THE MOMENT: the commercial microwave oven (left) hits the market KARIN MARLEY


Mmmm... blindingly white, gooey Wonder Bread, the perfect foundation on which to build the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Ask just about any kid. And the postThanksgiving Day hot turkey swimming in thick brown gravy? Without the spongy bread, it seems almost pointless. But nutritional? Not so much.

The refining required to make the flour in Wonder Bread and similar loaves depletes the final product of nutrients. You’re better off, nutritionally speaking, eating a slice of whole wheat bread, but for many people it’s just not the same. Now Omaha, Neb.-based food giant ConAgra Foods Inc. has developed Ultragrain White Whole Wheat, a flour that provides baked goods with more


Eat your oatmeal, grandma would say, it’s good for you. And so it was-we just didn’t know why. While modern science has made a mockery of a lot of folk wisdom, granny


heft of whole wheat while offering the sweetness and smooth texture of white flour.

Instead of adding ingredients, as with most of the new “functional foods,” ConAgra came up with the new product by changing its milling process. The result: Ultragrain naturally has “four to five times the levels of potassium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, copper, B vitamins (niacin and thiamine) and fibre found in refined flour,” the company claims. Somebody pass the peanut butter.

seems to have been bang on in this case. Grains such as barley and oats contain beta glucan, a fibre-like complex sugar that has been shown in clinical trials to be effective in reducing high cholesterol and the related risk of heart disease.

On the strength ofthat science, Edmontonbased Cevena Bioproducts Inc., a firm in the growing “functional food” business, has developed a system to extract beta glucan from oat and barley flour. It markets the extract, called Visco Fiber, to the makers of supplements, nutrition bars, fruit juices and smoothies. Get the health benefits of oatmeal, the theory goes, without having to eat it.


Fish smells. It has a lot of bones. And it tastes, well, fishy. There are plenty of reasons why Canadians don’t eat enough of it. So Ocean Nutrition Canada in Dartmouth, N.S., lets you skip the fish but still get the benefits of its omega-3 fatty acids, notably eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), that are good for the heart, brain and general health. The company purifies anchovy and sardine oil to produce Meg-3, a popular nutraceutical containing EPA and DHA. In capsules or as a powder, free of the distinctive taste or smell of fish, it has

six times the concentration of omega-3 acids found in cod liver oil. Meg-3 is used by makers of bread, muffins, milk, yogourt and other foods in the U.S., Europe and Australia.

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So, would you like some bacteria with your sushi? In your wine or dinner roll? Don’t scoff. While it’s unlikely your maître d’ will be asking you this anytime soon, an emerging field of research suggests that injecting certain foods with “good” bacteria-as opposed to those nasty pathogens like the E. coli bug-can actually improve digestion, boost the human immune system and help prevent diabetes. What’s more, benign bacteria also promise to make your food taste and smell better.

One of the leading researchers in this area-known as probiotics—is Michael Gänzle, a 37-year-old microbiologist who

was recruited from his native Germany by the University of Alberta just three months ago. Gänzle now holds the Canada Research Chair in Food Microbiology and Probiotics, which comes with a five-year, $500,000 federal government grant. “In the 20th century, we were very much concerned with getting rid of all bacteria in food,” says Gänzle. “The emphasis in the 21st century will be more on removing the bad guys while keeping the good guys.” Currently, probiotics research is focused on food and drinks that are fermented-including cheese, some types of sausage and many breads-but it could ultimately be applied to any food that is not heated or cooked before

a sort of “nutri-pharmacy.” The technology already exists, he says, to let consumers stroll into a supermarket and have their blood tested: a prick of the finger, a four-minute wait and that’s it—they’d be staring at an analysis of their cholesterol, glucose and triglyceride levels. A life-sciences graduate could then direct the shopper to the appropriate aisles stocked with designer foods that would reduce the risk of, say, developing diabetes, or perhaps keeling over from a heart attack. “Most people will be cured of their borderline high levels in four weeks,”

says Holub. “That’s low-cost, effective health care using agri-foods as a sort of pharmacy for disease prevention.”

But will consumers balk if food starts to look less like nutrition and more like a prescription? Why not just cut back on the North American diet and the high-caloric hoovering of too many fries, refined grains and desserts? We all know we need more of the fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, poultry and fish typical of the Mediterranean diet. The marketplace is addressing some health issues by, for example, slowly lower-

being eaten. For centuries, cheeses have been aged to varying degrees, allowing bacteria to generate a distinctive and, for some palettes at least, pleasurable taste. Since the 1970s, yogourt products injected with bacteria have been marketed commercially as a nutritious snack. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that probiotics research began in earnest, most of it centred in Europe.

Gänzle is particularly interested in the role lactic acid bacteria might play in producing health-enhancing breads. Among potential beneficiaries are people with the digestive disorder celiac disease, who cannot tolerate gluten-a protein found in wheat. There’s evidence that adding the right organisms might result in a bread that celiac sufferers would be able to eat. Similarly, lactic acid and other bacteria could be used to slow down the rate at which starch and sugars in breads are digested, helping to prevent diabetes and to lower cholesterol levels. It’s also thought that benign bacteria can be used to help ward off pathogens that pose a real threat of spreading infection.

But it’s not all about health. Gänzle believes his research could transform the food industry by revealing exactly how fermentation works. Now, he notes, fine cooks make great breads and cheeses while knowing nothing about the microbiological forces at play. If science can find ways to speed up fermentation, says Gänzle, it might be possible to generate the same high quality foods on an industrial scale, and sell them at a competitive price. Bacteria and capitalism—it was only a matter of time before they found each other. BRIAN BERGMAN

ing or even eliminating the widespread use of artery-clogging trans fats in crackers, peanut butter, baked goods, breakfast cereals, and elsewhere. Denmark became the first country to eliminate trans fats, a lead that the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada has urged Ottawa to follow. A Health Canada task force is due to release an interim report soon on ways to reduce trans fats in our food.

But maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle takes time and effort. Given our chickenfinger-licking, remote-control ways, and our



stubborn reluctance to follow Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating, magic-bullet solutions to our health problems are awfully tempting. Hence the hype around functional foods, says Bill Jeffery, national coordinator of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest in Ottawa, a consumer advocacy organization. But it’s buyer beware, he adds. “It’s really just an effort to sell more food,” says Jeffery, “by hanging marketers’ hats on a hot-button issue for consumers— their health.”

There’s a compelling case to be made that the same force—marketing—is to blame for the current obesity epidemic. Food ads on TV and in magazines are almost all for junk: fast food, soft drinks, potato chips, salted nuts, candy. Perhaps, argues Jeffery, the federal government should restrict advertising that targets children. As for functional foods offering the solution, it’s not as if foods with tremendous health advantages are anything new. “Those are already out there,” Jeffery says, “and they’ve been around for thousands of years.”

Last year, Decima Research Inc. handed Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada the results of a poll suggesting that Canadians may be receptive to a high-tech diet. In a survey of 2,000 adults, 81 per cent expressed at least some interest in learning more about foods “that have health benefits that go beyond basic nutrition and may reduce the risk of disease and other health concerns.” The poll also showed 71 per cent of respondents said food enriched with vitamins or minerals are important to eat, while 65 per cent said they already take vitamin and/or nutritional supplements.

But while the demand for healthier food is real, government regulators face a daunting task in trying to separate marketing fact from fiction. Enter the Advanced Foods and Materials Network, one of the federal gov-

ernment’s centres of excellence. Rickey Yada, the network’s Guelph-based scientific director, says his job is to dispel myths by identifying what’s junk science and what’s not. That includes the use of nutragenomics, the science of determining how genes affect an individual’s physiological response to a nutraceutical. “Echinacea is the panacea for curing colds,” says Yada, “but in reality it may only be good in me, but not you, because your genetic makeup doesn’t accommodate it.”

Companies, meanwhile, continue to finesse their message. In Canada, Smart (fie) isn’t allowed to claim its drinks improve mental acuity, although that’s implied. “What you drink (fie) how you think,” boasts every bottle’s label. Consumer watchdog Jeffery says that Health Canada is getting close to adjusting its regulations to allow some form of so-called “discretionary fortification”— adding vitamins and minerals to food to give the product a commercial edge over

competitors, even if the general public doesn’t suffer from a deficiency of those nutrients. The concern, then, is that nutrients of dubious value could be used to try to sell us food that might otherwise be bad for us— a vitamin-enhanced candy bar, for instance.

When Health Canada last updated labelling regulations, in 2003, it heeded the objections of nutritionists and consumer groups and stopped short of allowing product-specific health claims. Critics such as Jeffery cautioned that “the research that underpins that type of claim would be based on very small sample sizes, conducted over a short period of time, often based on research by commercially motivated scientists.” The decision, naturally, disappointed some companies in the food business. At Cevena Bioproducts, CEO Kimmo Lucas says there’s nothing wrong with a food company doing its own research. “The secrets of a well-designed study are no secret—double-blind, randomized, placebocontrol, etc., etc.,” he says. “The sad fact is if the companies don’t sponsor them, they don’t get done.”

The new superfood makers say they have their consumers’ health in mind, but they’re facing a determined, skeptical opposition as they try to improve their foothold in Canada. “We shouldn’t be thinking in terms of consuming more of a particular brand of mayonnaise, or a particular brand of breakfast cereal, because a certain constituent has been added to it and that’ll reduce your risk to a certain disease,” cautions Jeffery. “That’s medicalizing food, and that’s not appropriate.” Whether consumers agree with him will depend in part on the strength of the food makers’ science—and on how much tinkering with their food people can stomach. IH