Functional Foods Initiative

Linda Benedict  |  11/20/2008 3:55:13 AM

David Morrison

Nearly 2,500 years ago Hippocrates made a profound statement that is receiving much attention today. He said, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." Consumer interest in making food choices to manage or lower the risk of illness is probably at an all-time high. It has been reported that American consumers spent $31 billion last year on dietary supplements and herbal food products. Indeed, the combination of consumer desires, advances in food technology and science-based evidence linking diet to disease and disease prevention has created a huge opportunity to address human health and well-being through dietary intervention.
 
Interest in foods or food components that might promote health has resulted in the use of the term "functional foods." Clearly, all food is functional to a certain extent. Most provide energy and nutrients needed for growth, development and normal body maintenance. Many also provide aroma and taste that make for a pleasurable eating experience. However, functional foods are those that provide an additional physiological benefit beyond meeting basic nutritional needs.

There are some generally well-known examples of foods that have functions beyond their basic nutrition. Oatmeal contains beta glucan that has cholesterol-lowering effects. Soy has several beneficial properties, including lowering cholesterol, reducing the risk of osteoporosis, alleviating menopausal symptoms and reducing cancer risks. Lycopene in tomatoes has been found to reduce cancer risk, particularly of the prostate. Omega-3 fatty acids found in certain marine fish such as salmon and tuna may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. These are just a few.
 
Food and nutrition research has contributed significantly to the dramatic increase in life expectancy over the past 200 years, but the impact of diet on health is much broader and more complex. The field of functional foods is in its early stages. And while scientific advances have been made in recent years, additional research is needed on a number of fronts. The mission of the LSU AgCenter is improving the lives of Louisiana’s citizens. Conducting research and extension programs that will result in a healthier population in Louisiana and beyond is one key component of fulfilling that mission, and emphases on functional foods may be one approach toward that goal.
 
Interest in functional foods within the LSU AgCenter has developed as an outgrowth of individual research programs operating somewhat independently within a number of LSU AgCenter units. These include the departments of Food Science and Biological & Agricultural Engineering, the Audubon Sugar Institute, and the schools of Animal Sciences, Human Ecology, Plant, Environmental & Soil Sciences, and Renewable Natural Resources.
 
These programs were rather loosely organized until about five years ago. At that time, it was recognized that a Functional Foods Initiative was needed to better integrate and focus the faculty members involved. Better communication and collaboration were needed. To help provide a catalyst for the group to come together and pursue federal research funding, LSU AgCenter Chancellor Bill Richardson funded a pilot research-grants program in the spring of 2004. Ten proposals were originally submitted, and eight received funding. The funded proposals were all collaborative projects and represented nearly all of the LSU AgCenter units previously mentioned.
 
In February 2006, a mini review of the LSU AgCenter’s functional foods
programs was conducted by a nationally recognized expert. Several pertinent recommendations were made:

  • Systematically catalyze faculty research by creating critical mass clusters.
  • Enhance follow-through by conducting in vivo animal studies to substantiate the health beneficial effects of bioactive compounds. 
  • Identify functional compounds in sweet potatoes. Continue to build collaborative bridges with the Pennington Biomedical Research Center (PBRC).
Significant progress has occurred during the past two years. First, three faculty cluster groups were formed:
 
The Macronutrients/Pre- and Probiotics Cluster includes 10 LSU AgCenter, one Southern University Ag Center and four Pennington faculty members. This group has pioneered the way in researching resistant starch, which is the starch that escapes digestion in the small intestine and passes through to the large intestine where it acts like dietary fiber. This group also is testing Louisiana products containing resistant starch, such as rice and sweet potatoes.
 
The Bioactive Compounds Cluster includes 12 faculty members from the LSU AgCenter, one faculty member from the LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans and three faculty members from Pennington and two researchers from M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. The main focus of this group is to identify unique sources of functional food ingredients (particularly from Louisiana) and develop optimal extraction and processing methods that will allow their use.
 
The Sweet Potato Cluster includes includes seven AgCenter faculty members. This group is moving forward on two fronts. One is determining the compounds available in both the leaves and roots and assessing their functional properties. The other relates to improving production and processing methods of the root.
 
In addition to the activity that has occurred within each of the three functional foods clusters the past two years, another significant accomplishment has been the development, organization and staffing of the Animal Bioassay Core Lab. This has led to much more follow-through in testing identified bioactive compounds in animal studies as recommended by the review. Five animal studies were conducted in 2007, and six more are either planned or in progress for 2008. In addition, a high-throughput biological screening bioassay is being developed that uses C. elegans, a small worm that shows many of the developmental responses seen in higher species. So far, C. elegans has been shown to be a good test for anti-obesity activity while others have shown that it can be used to screen for bioactive compounds that improve aging and longevity. These two screening systems can be used in tandem to more efficiently screen for bioactives.
 
The LSU AgCenter’s functional foods initiative has many strengths on which to build a program of excellence.
 
These include:
  • Multi-disciplinary units that can address functional foods issues from a number of perspectives. 
  • Technology and analytical core facilities that can employ chemical extraction and analysis and food processing/engineering, evaluate sensory aspects and develop food products.
  • Excellent agricultural commodity and food industry relationships.
  • Clinical and other institutional collaborators.

As research provides the necessary evidence on the health benefits of functional foods, other hurdles also must be cleared. In fact, the Institute of Food Technologists Expert Report (published in 2005) "Functional Foods: Opportunities and Challenges" lists seven steps that are involved in bringing a functional food to market. These steps can be summed up by what has been called the Four D’s:

Discovery
– identify potentially active functional ingredients and foods. Development – establish and apply technology to validate effectiveness and safety of potential functional products.
Delivery – provide the functional food or ingredient in the most effective usable form.
Delicious – provide the functional food or ingredient in a great tasting product.
 
LSU AgCenter faculty and their collaborators are involved to a greater or lesser extent in all four of these areas. In this issue of Louisiana Agriculture, you have the opportunity to read about some of the cutting-edge research being conducted by LSU AgCenter research faculty. In addition, you will learn about extension programs aimed at educating the public to make wise nutritional choices related to improved health.
 
Finally, the LSU AgCenter is working with its partners and collaborators on what is being called the Foods for Health Initiative. This initiative is broader than, though similar to, the AgCenter’s original functional foods initiative. The vision statement of the Foods for Health Initiative is "to have a healthy population in Louisiana and the world through the discovery, development and delivery of health-promoting functional foods and products." Partners in the initiative include Pennington, U.S. Department of Agriculture-Southern Regional Research Center, Southern University Ag Center and food industry representatives. The overall goal is to improve human health and wellness while also fostering economic development, not only within the Louisiana foods industry but also within the state’s agribusiness sector.
 
As consumers become more health conscious, the demand and market value for health-promoting foods and food components are expected to grow. Future research at the LSU AgCenter will focus on identifying bioactive food components that positively affect health, and developing agricultural practices that enhance these bioactive food components in plants and animals. Extension professionals will be increasingly called upon to develop meal strategies that enhance functional food intake and to evaluate the appropriateness of functional foods to meet preventive and therapeutic intake levels for healthy persons and those diagnosed with disease.

David Morrison, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Animal & Food Sciences, LSU AgCenter, Baton Rouge, La.

(This article was published in the fall 2008 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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