The Expanding Need For Functional Foods

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

More are calling the obesity crisis an ‘epidemic’, but what has caused this, and what needs to happen to turn it around? What can be done at the individual, government, and industry level, and how can functional foods be a game changer? By Satya S. Jonnalagadda, PHD, MBA, RD, director of Global Nutrition, Kerry; Sheelagh Pentony, marketing communications manager—Nutrition, Kerry; and Niamh O’shaughnessy, MSC, Human Nutrition graduate, University College Dublin

Global projections indicate that by 2020, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes, will account for three out of every four deaths. Cardiovascular diseases and chronic obstructive diseases are expected to increase rapidly in many low and middle-income countries and NCDs are now a major cause of poverty, loss of productivity and poor quality of life worldwide.

In 2013, an estimated 2.1 billion people—nearly 30 percent of the entire global population—were overweight or obese. While Southeast Asia still has the lowest incidence of overweight and obesity globally at 14 percent and three percent respectively (the Americas have the highest at 62 percent and 26 percent respectively), the incidence has sharply increased according to the World Health Organisation particularly in Malaysia and Thailand. Improving consumer diets has a crucial role to play in reducing the burden of NCDs.

Nutrition Transition

Why are NCDs wreaking havoc on public health? It is because food choices and eating habits have changed dramatically around the world over the past 50 years. People’s diets have been infl uenced by a range of factors; technologies in our kitchen, modes of transport supplying our shops, media, government as well as trade and migration.

Ageing, globalisation and urbanisation all signify new challenges impacting what is consumed and its impact on nutritional status. In the current ‘nutrition evolution’, unhealthy eating habits are outpacing healthy eating patterns in most regions around the world.

Furthermore, the westernisation of lifestyles (diet, physical activity, daily living) continues to have a negative impact on public health in developing countries. Large portion sizes, highly refined foods, high intakes of added sugar and saturated fat, coupled with low intakes of whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and dietary fibre are the epitome of current dietary intakes, contributing to the global public health crisis. This unfavourable shift in nutrient intake has been linked to the rapid, worldwide growth of diet-related chronic diseases, particularly obesity.

The Frequent Consumer

Income, the cost of living, individual preferences and beliefs as well as cultural customs frame dietary consumption patterns and how they change. Gone are the days of three meals a day; today’s consumer is on average consuming six or more meals a day.

For this reason, food and beverage selections have to accommodate the nutritional needs of changing consumption patterns, in particular the grazing habits of the frequent consumer, by delivering smaller and more nutrient dense portions.

Food With A Meaning–Social Eating

Food, once consumed for survival is now consumed as a social activity. The way we eat, the type of food we buy, where we get it from and how it is prepared has become a part of our character and defines how well we live. Food often brings people together in a social setting. The presence of other people during a meal occasion has an effect on behaviour as humans have the tendency to crave approval from others.

A National Geographic study looked into cultural differences and food and it found that the majority of countries reported that food was an essential part of their culture. Indian, Chinese, Spanish and Mexican consumers in particular were the most attached to their national foods.

According to Dr Brian Wansink from Cornell University, US, the average individual makes more than 200 decisions about food every day. However, when asked, people estimated they were making only 15. Dr Wansink believes that ‘mindless autopilot’ is what is driving most of our food decisions. He believes that most of us do not overeat because we are hungry, but because of the increasing socialisation of food and beverage consumption and the lack of discipline and routine around food consumption.

Influenced Eating

People can be very impressionable when it comes to how much they eat, and this becomes their consumption norm. For many individuals, determining how much to consume depends on how much they usually eat rather than what the appropriate portion size is.

Both the abundant choices in flavour varieties and the social aspect of eating influence an individual’s food consumption, and this is especially true for women. Recent studies suggest that portion distortion begins as early as three years of age. Due to busier lifestyles, populations are mindlessly eating, i.e. eating when possible rather than when necessary.

Mindful eating is an idea that encourages a shift away from autopilot eating by paying attention to our body’s hunger cues. Achieving a balance in daily intake is not about ‘dieting’, rather it is about making the right food choices to nourish our bodies to energise and stimulate us to be more productive. By tuning into our body’s needs, we are able to make better choices.

Where To From Here?

If the global health epidemic is to be tackled, balanced, nutritious diets must become the order of the day, and responsibility and action must be taken at the industry, social and an individual level. Choices must be simplified for individuals to achieve dietary intake recommendations.

In an effort to help consumers make healthier, more nutritious food choices, policy makers have responded by making recommendations such as:

  • Decreasing added sugar content to 5-10 percent of total energy content
  • Improving nutrition facts panel
  • Implementing front-of-pack labelling e.g. the traffic light system
  • Changing school nutrition regulations
  • Taxation of nutrients that are over consumed
  • Requiring disclosure of nutrition information on restaurant menus

Consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies are supporting organisations, such as the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF), which aims to help to reduce obesity by removing 1.5 trillion calories from the US food supply by 2015. We have also seen major CPG companies reacting to health and wellness trends by removing artificial flavours and colours, and lowering sodium and sugar from some of their iconic brands. Additionally, the portion sizes of common foods are being adjusted to help reduce overconsumption.

Functional Forward Thinking

Health and wellness trends suggest that current consumer demands for ‘Free-From’, ‘Better-for-You’, and ‘Good-For- You’ food and beverages are increasing. More and more savvy consumers are focusing on the nutritional quality of food so they can make more nutritious and healthier food and beverage choices, without compromising on taste or convenience.

This has increased the scrutiny of the nutritional features of food and beverages consumed, and their functional health benefits. A growing number of people understand that what they eat is fundamental to their health—as Hippocrates put it “Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food.”

The food and beverage industry has responded, for example, by removing artificial colours, artificial preservatives, reducing saturated fat, sodium, removing trans-fat and partially hydrogenated oils, and increasing protein, whole grains, and fibre.

How Can Balance Be Achieved?

Balance can be achieved by following the basic principles of moderation and inclusion of all the key food groups in one’s daily diet:

  • Include at least five servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables daily
  • Increase intake of whole grains (at least three servings) and limit refined grain products;
  • Consume a good mix of lean proteins, both animal (unless vegetarian) and plant. Nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh and other soy-based products are excellent sources of protein and healthy alternatives to meat;
  • Include low-fat dairy for calcium, vitamin D, and other essential nutrients;
  • Consume adequate amounts of the healthy, more beneficial fats and oils from plants and fish while minimising the saturated animal fats;
  • Limit night-time snacking;
  • Choose nutrient dense rather than energy dense foods;
  • Track food intake and incorporate daily physical activity (30-60 min);
  • Limit consumption of foods containing high levels of sodium, added sugar, saturated fats or trans-fats

The Food Industry—A Powerful Platform For Change

Growing awareness around what constitutes healthy eating patterns has started to see a shift in eating habits among mainstream consumers. The food industry can play a vital role in educating consumers and empowering them with relevant information so they can make better food choices and lead healthier lives.

Consumers are shunning restrictive fads in favour of a more holistic wellness approach—they would rather hear about what they can eat rather than what they cannot eat.

There is growing demand for functional foods that can help individuals to increase their fruit and vegetable intake and products containing ‘superfoods’. Protein and fibre are seen as an unstoppable combination that is being included in an ever increasing range of food products.

Consumers are actively looking for more tailored, value added products, giving food and beverage manufacturers the opportunity to develop convenient, targeted nutritional products that can help alleviate the burden on health systems worldwide, caused by the crippling effects of NCDs.