As the U.S. functional food market continues to evolve, so too does the market in Europe. At the 5th International Fresenius Conference on Functional Food held in Frankfurt at the end of October, a gathering of experts took a closer look at market drivers and how consumer behaviors are influencing market growth and direction.
An increasing number of companies are helping to expand the European functional foods segment with new products conveying a variety of benefits related to health, well-being and performance beyond their immediate nutritional value. Conference organizers maintained that the climbing number of companies and innovations in the sector underscores the huge influence of functional food on the European market.
The conference was convened to examine if functional food products the are solution for nutrition-related diseases, where difficulties lie, and the future outlook.
According to Stefanie Hecht of COGNOS AG, a large private and independent educational group in Germany that offers higher education, vocational education and continuing education on topics of health and business/management, the talking points of the conference centered on EU-legislation’s (non-existing) official definition of “functional food,” the need for proper validations of the attached health claims, the global importance of health claim regulations, the effect on functional food development, and the use of functional foods against widespread diseases like colon cancer, obesity and iodine deficiency in industrialized countries.
Ms. Hecht said that the top-of-mind conditions for EU functional food formulators and consumers alike are “obesity and its outcomes like hypertension, diabetes and dyslipidemia that lead to cardiovascular diseases, [the] fight against forms of cancer that interconnect with nutrition, and [the] influence on the overall immune system.”
Kristin Verbeke from the Medical Faculty of the University of Leuven spoke to the attendees about the benefits of probiotics. “Considerable evidence indicates some that specific probiotic preparations are able to influence the microbiota composition and metabolic activity in the gut,” she said. “Moreover, probiotics could decrease the degree of bile salt degradation and influence the immune system, for example by activating specific immune cells or modifying cytokine production. It has been argued that these mechanisms are likely to result in beneficial effects in clinical conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), allergy, gastrointestinal infections and colon cancer. However, clinical trials have confirmed some of these effects whereas they remain inconclusive for other effects (e.g. colon cancer).”
Health Claim Regulations
The idea of functional food regulation was a hot topic and the conference. At present, the functional food category is officially regulated only in Japan whereas the European Union legislation does not provide an official definition for these products. Dr. Hannu J. Korhonen, a professor at MTT Agrifood Research Finland, observed that the great number of products on the EU market labeled with generic or specific health claims and coined as functional foods requires proper validation of the attached health claims.
In order to harmonize the markets and to ensure consumer protection against misleading market messages, he said, the EU established the Regulation (EC) 1924/2006 on nutrition and health claims on foods in 2006. “One of the key objectives of this regulation is to ensure that any claim made on a food label is clear and substantiated by scientific evidence,” Dr. Korhonen explained. “Health claim regulations will globally affect the development of functional foods by removing unsubstantiated products from the market and boosting entry of products with real health benefits.
“Functional foods continue to be a globally expanding category aiming for improved health and well-being of consumers through specific diets,” Dr. Korhonen predicted.
Obesity & Iodine Deficiency
Obesity is a major risk factor for conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and dyslipidemia that lead to cardiovascular diseases like coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, stroke and others. Dr. Susanne Römer (Allianz Private Health Insurance APKV) spoke about how obesity has evolved into a lifestyle disease and a major problem in many industrialized countries. She advised that any therapy has to affect eating, physical activity and behavioral changes. To reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease beyond the reduction of weight she stressed the importance of increased consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole meal products, low energy beverages and less fat.
Beyond obesity, iodine deficiency is another health issue widespread in industrialized countries. Because iodine is essential for the synthesis of thyroid hormones, the effects of iodine deficiency are hypothyroidism, impaired mental function and impaired physical development. Natural sources of iodine include marine fish, seaweed and other seafood. Also, use of iodized salt now is common and risk groups like pregnant women are prescribed iodine tablets. “Recent studies have shown that a good level of iodine nutrition can be ensured thanks to a ‘functional’ supply that compensates for the poor natural supply,” Dr. Römer explained.