Meeting Functional Demands Through Big Data

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

There may not have been a better time for food companies to invest in the development of products that are enhanced with functional ingredients and the application of big data technology may be the big leap forward. By Vincent Monahan, business development, Nuritas

Healthcare for many is less about the care of health and more about the treatment of disease when it comes knocking at your door. Chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are developed over many years and these diseases emphasis that a short-sighted attitude towards personal health can be hazardous in the long run, often placing a reliance on pharmaceuticals.

Current scientific understanding now recognises functional foods for their ability to prevent the onset of chronic diseases. In parallel, the public’s perception of health management is shifting as there has been a realisation that a long term commitment to health is the way forward.

What is driving the functional foods market and how can it reach its full potential?

Proactive Over Reactive Approach

Dennis Wilkinson

The discovery, development and marketing of functional foods are one of the fastest growing segments of the food industry. There are multiple drivers behind the functional food and ingredients growth trends.

On one hand, we have the consumer driven side. Since the advent of the internet, there has been a big shift in consumer awareness towards food, nutrition and health, with previously specialised nutritional knowledge now readily available.

Linked to this is the increased interest in personal health, which is driving the demand for functional foods, especially amongst millennials. Foods are now perceived, and proven, to have the ability to prevent the onset and risk of disease, allowing a proactive rather than a reactive approach to disease.

Consumers today want to know about the individual ingredients in functional products. Does the ingredient work? What is the proof? Is it natural, sustainable and does the therapeutic value of the final product equate to the price point?

On the other side, we have a change in the pressure placed upon food companies and a drive for companies to compete to meet these consumer demands.

Previously, the driving pressure for product development was placed on taste with a lesser regard for the overall health of the product. This has resulted in the type of palatable convenience product, high in sugars, salt, and taste enhancers, that typically line the supermarket shelves.

These are the type of products that, when consumed by today’s health conscious consumer, lead to that type of post-snacking guilt that most can relate to. Many of the largest food companies are continuously finding ways to disassociate themselves from this type of product and increase their association with those that benefit health.

For example, in 2012, Nestlé completed the acquisition of Pfizer Nutritional for US$11.8 billion, which greatly enhanced their scientific capabilities. They are investing “US$500 million over the next decade to develop health and wellness products,” says former CEO and present chairman of the board of Nestlé SA, Peter Brabeck- Letmathe.

Functional ingredients are the cornerstone of the functional food movement, analogous to the computer industry where the chip inside provides the real power to the final product.

There is a relative bottleneck, as the demand for scientifically proven functional ingredients has not been met with a reliable supply. Internal processes within large companies were originally not equipped for this type of innovation and we have seen horizontal transfers of scientific knowledge in the ingredients space through acquisitions.

However, the discovery of novel food-derived active ingredients is still alien to a large portion of the industry. Many active ingredients have been developed and are used by millions today. For example, the probiotics, prebiotics and more recently synbiotics, that are used to promote gut health have become staple ingredients of the functional food area.

The probiotic bacteria lactobacillus casei, as well as indigestible carbohydrate prebiotics such as inulin (commonly derived from chicory), have been popular. Additionally, bioactive lipids such as omega 3s and secondary metabolites, including flavanols derived from cocoa, are now well known in most households.

In recent years, there has been an unprecedented demand, from both consumers and industry, for inexpensive and natural bioactive peptides.

The therapeutic properties of bioactive peptides have long been recognised by the pharmaceutical industry where they are often important sources of drug lead compounds. These signalling molecules play important roles in human physiology and pathogenesis, and possess a wide range of therapeutic properties effective in preventing disease.

Bioactive Peptides From Natural Proteins

A large benefit of bioactive peptides is that they are derived from all natural proteins. For example, anti-hypertensive peptides have been found in broccoli, egg, milk, meat, wheat, soy, and fish. Often, they are inactive within the sequence of parent proteins but when they are released by specific enzymes, they exert their therapeutic effects.

Perhaps our perception of natural foods components as a mean of preventing disease can be summed up in a 1902 quote from Thomas Edison that aptly reads: “There were never so many able, active minds at work on the problems of diseases as now, and all their discoveries are tending to the simple truth–that you can’t improve on nature”.

Discovering novel, scientifically proven, ingredients in a way that is commercially viable for the producer and the consumer is a big challenge facing the industry.

Step one for developing any functional ingredient is identifying the relationship between the functional component of a food and the health benefit. Step two is demonstrating the efficacy and determining the intake level necessary to achieve the desired effect.

For both steps one and two, laboratory experimentation is the tried and tested foundation for ingredient discovery and assessing the efficacy of potential ingredients. However, used in isolation, it is very time and capital intensive.

Enhancing the current discovery process with the use of enabling technology before experimentation will greatly accelerate ingredient development and market release. Reducing time and effort in this area is crucial in order to create new commercially viable products with clear and important health benefits.

The food industry, when compared to others such as the pharmaceutical industry, has been relatively slower in adopting enabling technologies. There was of course, a different kind of pressure on the pharmaceutical industry to adopt these technologies.

The impetus for functional ingredient discovery in the food industry was, for the most part, an adaptation to consumer driven market trends, as well as a coinciding increase in the understanding of the relationship between food and health. To unlock the value of functional foods, the industry realises that there is a need to adapt to new technology that is now on our doorstep.

Revolutionisation Through Computational Technologies

Bioinformatics is an interdisciplinary field that develops methods and software tools for the understanding of biological data. The exponential growth of computational power, storage capacity and genome sequencing has led to the advent of bioinformatics, which allows the integration of big data analysis in food. It is only recently being used in the food industry, quickly data mining food for bioactive peptides in food, to predict functionalities pre-experimentation.

Its application in this sector can revolutionize our understanding of food and accelerate the ingredient discovery process. Companies that supplement experimental research with the predictive capabilities of bioinformatics will gain a strong competitive advantage.

According to Dr Nora Khaldi who has devoted years of research to big data analysis in the food industry and pioneered the introduction of data analytics in food at the molecular level, “the billions of interactions that food has within our bodies on a daily basis are totally unknown and we have not been equipped with the right technology to understand these interactions until now.”

She added that the use of computational technologies has improved how we view food, and the integration of big data allows us to rapidly discover fascinating bioactive functional food ingredients from a wide range of foods.

In addition to the research and development bottleneck that limits food companies, the regulatory framework surrounding proven active ingredients creates somewhat of a barrier.

In recent years, increased interest in scientifically proven food ingredients has placed considerable pressure on regulatory bodies such as the European Food Safety Association (EFSA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

They have not adapted fully and to date, there is no clearly defined framework for ingredient producers looking to regulate scientifically proven food ingredients.

The success/failure of a functional ingredient can hinge on scientific approval through organisations such as EFSA. Until there is a clear sequence of defined milestones, there will be an inherent uncertainty for ingredient producers.

However, regulation has come a long way since the tomato extract Fruitflow gained the first approved positive health claim in 2010 under article 13.5 of the European Food Safety Authority regulations.

Since then, a clearer framework has been established. For example, EFSA has recently issued a long awaited immune and gut health claim guidance document which may lead to the first probiotic health claim win.

“The industry will benefit from clearer guidelines and the panel is hoping to receive better applications as a result. It will be better for all concerned,” says EFSA spokesperson Jan Op Gen Oorth.

Ingredients in the food area are inherently different to those used in pharmaceuticals. Both functional and drug ingredients rely on scientific evidence and approval. However, functional ingredients from natural sources are very different from drug ingredients.

They are preventative and exert their effects over a long period of time, and therefore, it can be argued that functional ingredients should not undergo the same scrutiny.

Cardiovascular diseases represent a well-known burden on the public’s health, escalated by Western habits of high meat/ saturated fat diets, stress-inducing work environments and sedentary lifestyle habits to name a few.

A recent study conducted over 15 years by Dr Ann Marie Navar-Boggan and her colleagues at the Duke Clinical Research Institute revealed that even slightly high cholesterol levels in otherwise healthy adults between the ages of 35 to 55 can have long-term impacts on cardiac health. Even a decade of high cholesterol can increase the chance of heart disease by 39 percent.

This study presents an interesting case. When is the right time for a healthcare intervention in this scenario? Should we wait to reach some sort of medical threshold that necessitates a medical intervention?

Statins have been successfully used by millions of people with elevated cholesterol; however, with the effects of decade-long usage unknown, this highlights a scenario where the preventative qualities of functional ingredients can have a real impact!

In summary, the functional food trend is largely consumer driven. Modern consumers are wiser in their nutritional choices and are demanding health promoting products.

Food companies are striving to meet these demands by focussing efforts on developing effective functional ingredients that provide the consumer with health benefits. Using today’s methods of discovery, the demand for effective ingredients is not being met, and the process is still time and capital intensive.

There has never been such an ideal time than now for the adoption of big data computational technologies that facilitate the rapid discovery of functional ingredients. As Victor Hugo once said “Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.”