27 January 2017 | Column | By Dr. Jagadish Pai, Executive Director, Protein Foods & Nutrition Development Association of India
Ancient Indian traditional medicinal system
Although functional foods may have been traditionally used in many ancient cultures, Japan was the first country to have regulations for functional foods. Although the definitions may vary, it is more or less accepted that functional foods are different from ordinary foods in that foods are supposed to provide nutrients that are needed by body for maintaining it and their deficiency may cause deficiency diseases, but functional foods go beyond traditional nutritional effects in that they may contain ingredients or components naturally present or added specifically so their consumption may reduce the risk of some diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and age-related diseases etc.
In India, Food Safety & Standards Act 2006, loosely defines functional foods along with foods for special dietary uses, nutraceuticals and health supplements stating that they may contain plants, botanicals, extracts as well as vitamins and minerals etc. and may either be in food form or in the form of powders, tablets etc. Recently there have been regulations notified regarding these foods. Institute of Medicine, USA defines functional foods as any food or food ingredients that may provide health benefit beyond the traditional nutrient it contains.
Ancient Indian traditional medicinal system Ayurveda has been practiced for millennia and is still quite accepted. Indians have been familiar with functional foods such as chyavanprash and many botanicals such as brahmi, ashwagandha etc. Indians have been using spices and herbs in cooking for centuries so daily diet contains functional foods containing garlic, turmeric, chillies and many other ingredients which have health benefits. Thus this concept is not new and Indians readily accepted many newer forms of functional foods that contain probiotics, omega 3 etc.
As the definition is not very strict, there are products which are fortified with common nutrients such as more protein, vitamins and minerals are also considered by many as functional foods.
It may be clear from the fact that Westerners take a little time to get used to and like spicy Indian cuisine because people are used to certain taste preferences and when a new substance is added to the food it may not be acceptable unless the product is made tasteful and appealing. Even when people know that these substances may provide health benefits they prefer to have acceptable taste for food even though they would take medicines which are bitter and with dreadful taste. Many botanicals with health benefits need to be made more acceptable taste and flavour-wise.
Many of the herbs have been investigated and their health benefits have been shown, but these are not cultivated in organised manner although organised farming of many botanicals used in foods has already started. Thus sourcing of these substances becomes a challenge. The active substance e.g. curcumin in turmeric, may vary in content depending on variety, growing conditions including environment conditions and fertilisers, harvesting practices and storage conditions, and finally preparation of extract. All of these will all affect the content of active substance. Standardisation is necessary for effectiveness of the functional food.
Markets have already started filling up with products containing substances such as probiotics, prebiotics, DHA & EPA omega 3, oryzanol, antioxidants, lutein, isoflavones, as well as proteins, vitamins and minerals which are claimed to have all kind of health benefits. There are inputs from several expertise needed to have a good functional food market thriving. Agriculture should provide good quality material using good agricultural practices. These need to be added to food products which will maintain their efficacy without losses and will not cause any off taste in the products. So food scientists and nutritionists are needed to give inputs to prepare an acceptable product which needs to be scaled up in a manufacturing facility. Toxicologists must evaluate the toxicity of the preparation and finally the medical experts will provide data of whether it is giving the benefit that is being claimed so clinical trials are necessary. Finally government needs to allow the product to be marketed with the proper claim. A network of all these people working together will make the industry come up and grow well.
Companies are always in a hurry to launch the product as they feel that if they lose time competitors will have an edge. However, when inadequately tested product will cause harm or will not be effective. So although there is urgency for the product coming into the market this group of products requires special attention and undue hurry may cause a lot of problems.
People want these products as the diseases connected with many are growing rapidly and the cost of medical treatments are increasing enormously. It makes sense to prevent these diseases as cure is very expensive. However, consumers want some assurance that the products perform what they are claimed to. Thus products must undergo clinical trials to verify that under the conditions of actual usage by consumers the benefits are derived.
Indians have several issues with food and nutrition. Protein intakes are less so they must consumer more of higher quality protein and if these are not available from the foods they normally consume then supplements are necessary. People are also getting less of omega 3 from their diet than recommended. So either consumption of fish, consumption of oils richer in omega 3 such as flax seed, mustard oil, soya oil etc., or they could take cod liver oil or omega 3 capsules. Dietary fibre has not been a problem for Indians in the past but more recently their fibre intake has gone down because of their changes in diet. All these necessitate that they take proper care about diet and if there are any deficiencies or if any possibility of some of the non-communicable diseases are to be prevented, then functional foods and/or dietary supplements are necessary.
Government has been a little slow in implementing many fortification programs. Years ago they started addition of vitamin A to vanaspati. A few years ago they mandated addition of iodine to salt. Now they have allowed fortification of milk by vitamin A and D. They should create awareness about good dietary practices and importance of various nutrients and the relation of diet and many diseases.