Functional Foods The Silver Lining In Ageing

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

No one can stop ageing, and since it is the inevitable, why not ensure that as we age, we age well? Functional foods could be one way to healthy ageing. By Michelle Cheong

‘Time waits for no man’… this is a very true and valid statement in our world today. Everyone is getting older with each passing day, and in many societies and on a global scale, this is becoming of greater concern because of the age-related health problems that come with ageing.

The United Nations reported that in 2015, there are 901 million people aged 60 and over, translating to about 12 percent of the world’s population. This group is growing at a rate of 3.62 percent per year, and by 2030, the projected number of persons over 60 would amount to 1.4 billion.

Since it is not feasibly possible to find ways to get younger, what we can control about our ageing fate is to age well. This can be done by maintaining our physical and mental health with regular exercise and healthy diets, which could help reduce our risks of ageing diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, dementia or even Alzheimer’s disease.

Many of today’s consumers are becoming more aware of the importance of maintaining one’s health, and coupled with their consequent increased demands for health and wellness products, increased interest has also been garnered in the area of ‘natural ingredients’, and ‘functional foods’.

Natural ingredients are generally understood as those that do not contain added colour, artificial flavours or synthetic substances, and going further, are derived from animals or plants (fruit or plant extracts), nuts, or funghi.

Functional foods, according to Euromonitor International, are identified as those that provide health benefits beyond its normal nutritional value, and refer to food or beverages which have been actively enhanced with health ingredients as well as fortified foods.

In recent years, functional foods have been rapidly appearing on shelves. Many of these contain natural ingredients and claim to be able to aid in health (for weight loss, a healthier body, etc.) or prevent the onset of diseases like arthritis through the provision of collagen, or Alzheimer’s with plant extracts that improve cognitive health.

Polygala tenufolia, or Yuan Zhi, is commonly used in traditional
Chinese medicine.

One example is that by Korean company BrainTropia, who has made a formulation from the root extracts of polygala tenuifolia willdenow, also known as Yuan Zhi, a plant that is commonly used for its roots in traditional Chinese medicine. This is as its roots are known to have sedative, antipsychotic, cognition-improving, neuroprotective and antidepressant effects.

The company’s sales and marketing director, Budman Lee Hyungku, said that they have found substantial evidence for it being able to improve cognitive health, and they aim to market it as a product that will be able to prevent cognitive degeneration that would otherwise lead to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Today, herbal tonics are popular among Koreans, especially among men and those of the older generation, he shared. With the new formulation that can be incorporated into beverages with a herbal taste, or in pills or capsules, intake is made easy and convenient for consumers. Not to mention, dosages can easily be changed to fit different products or consumer profiles without posing any threat to health, Mr Lee said.

That is the advantage of using natural ingredients for functional foods, he pointed out. The key points of ingredients in functional food and beverages should be on two things: toxicity—which should be low so it is no detrimental to health; and safety—allowing consumers to take larger doses suiting their preference, or enabling them to take it over long periods of time without experiencing side effects.

Medicinal drugs can be taken in small quantities and still have quick and observable effects in our body. However, when we intake chemicals from drugs over a long period of time, they can cause problems in health.

Natural ingredients such as those used in traditional Chinese medicine on the other hand, do not cause these problems and have extensive evidence in the literature supporting their safety and low toxicity. This was also the reason why Mr Lee’s company decided to use Yuan Zhi.

The trade-off however, is that the resultant functional foods or beverages have to be taken over a longer period of time for the body to respond and show signs of changes. Still, safety and toxicity of ingredients are the most important factor in the equation, he reiterated.

According to Mr Lee, there is still more to be done to perfect the company’s formulation. By determining which pathway exactly can be inhibited or activated with the ingredient, they would then be able to utilise its full potential for improving cognitive health.

The functional foods market today in Asia and the world is increasing every year. Perhaps in the near future, more effective and inspiring innovations for functional food and beverages will be found to help us age even better and cope with our inevitable fate.