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Functional Foods: A Complex Science

Functional food is a booming industry, and Finland is on the forefront with products like xylitol for dental health and Raisio’s Benecol to lower cholesterol. However, some fear that current regulations could squelch companies' appetite for developing new functional foods.

Image: YLE

The Japanese first coined the term “functional food” in the 1980s. Since then, many in the food industry have set their sight on developing these health-boosting products that will improve the well-being of consumers.

According to a 2009 report by consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, the global market for functional foods is expected to grow from $78 billion to $128 billion from 2007 to 2013. Not surprisingly, many companies are eager to cash in on potentially lucrative health claims.

However, food manufacturers hoping to tack on additional health claims to food labels in the European Union have to win over the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Commission first.

So far, the outlook doesn’t seem too promising for food innovators. Recently the European Commission, upon receiving opinions from EFSA, rejected 16 and approved 7 new health claims to be included in food labels.

The number represents just a fraction of the applications submitted by companies for review. But Hannu Korhonen, a panel member of EFSA and a professor at MTT Agrifood Research Finland, says he fears the percentage of rejections could remain largely the same in the future.

"The difficult regulation process could deter companies from investing more time and money into developing functional foods," he adds.

However, EFSA is sticking to its guns. It’s calling on companies that received negative reviews to produce more scientific proof to back their health-bolstering claims.

Come again?

Some companies blame the complicated application process for their rejected claims.

“I think many of them have not realised what it means to make an application. It is a learning process for everybody to understand what the requirements of the regulations are. EFSA has published guidelines along the way,” says Seppo Salminen, an EFSA panel member and the director of Finland’s Functional Foods Forum.

Finnish dairy firm Valio was one of the companies to receive a negative review. Despite extensive research, the company will not be able to claim that its Evolus products reduce arterial stiffness. Furthermore, it cannot claim that its Gefilus product reduces gastro-intestinal discomfort. Last spring, however, Valio did win the right to claim that Evolus lowers cholesterol.

Valio says it wishes EFSA would have published more guidelines on the application process.

“They don’t know themselves at the moment how much research is needed, so no one is able to forecast if their application will go through or not,” says Riitta Korpela, the Vice President of R&D at Valio.

A negative review isn’t the end of the road for food manufacturers hoping to make new health claims. Companies have the option of producing more scientific data to backup health promises. They can also continue marketing products without those specific health claims. The last, and perhaps least desirable, option is to withdraw the product from the market.

For its part, Valio says it will continue to study the effects of its products.

Meanwhile, Salminen says he sees an even brighter future for functional foods. He contends that recent decisions made by regulators will help companies determine how to get the green light on health claims. But he doesn’t suggest that EFSA go lax on its duties.

“I still don’t think we will see a tremendous amount of real health claims,” he adds.

Food for thought

Further down the food chain, some consumers are confused by the real value of functional foods.

“Consumers have diverse opinions about functional foods. Some think they are useful products that could replace medicines for a condition. On other hand some think they are a scientific innovation that is against the idea of natural or pure foods,” says Mari Niva, a senior researcher at National Consumer Research Centre.

Meanwhile, EFSA is adamant that functional foods can offer health benefits. However, in the end the food safety watchdog says its job is to help consumers make informed choices at the grocery store.

“Marketing messages must be true. If there is any relation to health, they have to be scientifically proven,” says Korhonen.