Tuesday, August 07, 2007
The future of food
Gummi bears infused with vitamins, just one display at last week's meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists. The IFT show drew 20,000 attendees.By Caleb Hellerman
Food technology: the application of food science to the selection, preservation, processing, packaging, distribution, and use of safe, nutritious, and wholesome food.
I spent last weekend surrounded by food technologists. I was in Chicago, researching an upcoming Dr. Sanjay Gupta special about nutrition and obesity and attending a conference run by the Institute of Food Technologists. The FDA food safety chief was talking about spinach safety. Top execs from General Mills, Kraft and Campbell's were talking about kid-healthy foods. The Army was showing off its new MREs for Afghanistan, and there were sleeping models, a ventriloquist's dummy and a belly dancer. Let's just say that when the IFT puts on a show, it's a big one.
This year, the conference buzzwords were "nutraceuticals" (a combination of the words "nutrition" and "pharmaceutical") and "functional food." IFT spokesman Roger Clemens, also a pharmacy professor at the University of Southern California, predicts that in the not-too-distant future, "functional food" will be a $600 billion market - yes, he said billion with a "b." Even if there's some hyperbole - supermarket food sales as a whole totaled $500 billion last year, according to industry analysts - it's still a big market.
OK, but what are nutraceuticals and functional foods?
In Japan, according to Makoto Shimizu, a professor at the University of Tokyo, more than 650 products are approved as "Food for Specified Health Use," from fighting fatigue to preventing allergies. It's a lot easier to qualify for the label, than it is to get the ingredients approved as medicine in the U.S. But Clemens says the legal and regulatory climate is changing. "Where does food end and the medicine begin?" As the benefits of certain foods are examined more closely, he says, "Maybe the definition will change as to what connotes a drug."
You could find one simple functional food at several exhibitors' tables: vitamin-infused candy. Worthless, a prominent nutrition expert told me, although he didn't want his name used. I'm not sure I agree. Of course it would be healthier to eat a complete diet, full of vegetables, but who has the time? Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that barely 1 percent of children and teenagers meet government guidelines for a healthy diet. Neither they nor I were surprised.
If my kids are munching on candy anyway, is it really so bad if it's giving them their RDA at the same time? Is there a healthy food product you would like to see on the shelves?
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