Functional foods contain an ingredient
- a micronutrient or a naturally occurring chemical - which has
been shown to confer health benefits, such as reducing the probability
of contracting certain diseases. The key word is not so much prevention
as risk-reduction. The potential is huge, with some estimating
a market worth 25
billion early this century.
Many scientists, however, remain cautious. It is not enough to
demonstrate that a particular food has an effect on a particular
physiological or biological function. Before any 'functional claims'
for a food can be made, the precise relationship between the specific
nutrients and the related function - and possibly pathologies
- must be understood and controlled.
"While we can now see links between certain fats and cardiovascular
disease, or between calcium and osteoporosis, we must understand
the exact conditions that promote the protective or therapeutic
effect of a specific foodstuff," explains Marcel Roberfroid, Professor
at the School of Pharmacy of the Catholic University of Louvain
(UCL-Belgium). "We cannot launch functional foods based on unverified
Hence the FUFOSE (Functional Food Science in Europe) concerted
action project, which Professor Roberfroid coordinates. The aim:
to identify current knowledge in this area and highlight any gaps
requiring further research.
FUFOSE has established ten working groups, made up of 54 researchers
from 10 EU countries. Between them the groups cover six priority
areas in the field of human physiology: the gastro-intestinal
system; defence against the reactive species of oxygen; the cardio-vascular
system; the metabolism of substrates and metabolic diseases; development,
growth and differentiation; psychological functions and behaviour.
Their goal is to verify hypotheses as varied as the effect of
antioxidants against certain forms of cancer and the long-term
benefits of consuming certain poly-unsaturated fatty acids at
an early age. By pooling the resources of so many countries and
researchers, the network will accelerate the appearance of functional
foods based on sound scientific principles, to the benefit of