Give nourishment to each person according to need

March 15, 2002

Functional food could solve the problems of starvation and obesity, says Robert Pickard.

Human beings in the developed world no longer see food simply as fuel for life. Individuals look to food to give them qualities that their own genes would deny them: from acknowledged beauty, perfect health, outstanding longevity and maximum functionality to a quick and peaceful end in old age.

These expectations are in marked contrast to those of the vast majority of people still living with deficiency diseases and those threatened by starvation in the less fortunate economies of the world. Unique among animals aspiring to become social, humankind still controls its population level through war, disease and famine.

Nature is not benign. Those who watch natural history programmes on television might be forgiven for thinking that each species has been given a part to play in a great cosmic symphony. Nothing could be further from the truth. No seat has been reserved for us in this orchestra. We have inherited an old instrument that met the needs of our ancestors, and we are thrown into the melee with the instruction: play in harmony or lose your place.

In this hostile universe, we need to apply every aspect of science in the service of our survival. Each application of new technology must be judged on its merits, and unfavourable cases should be rejected.

In the case of diet and health, new technology can be applied to the development of foods to reduce the personal and social damage wrought by obesity, cancer and cardiovascular disease. But much has to be done to ensure that health claims can be substantiated, and dietary advice does not become confused as the boundaries between traditional food groups are eroded. Smart science is being used to generate the new technologies and their products, from intelligent designer molecules, through enhancement, fortification and supplementation, to pre and probiotics, phytochemicals and nutraceuticals. Supplements have their role, but they should not be used as substitutes for whole foods.

Advances in nanotechnology allow us to sculpt molecules with precise hydrophobic and hydrophilic dimensions to meet required food properties. They also enable us to fabricate biosensors that integrate organic molecules in food with microelectronic circuits that can measure directly and continuously health biomarkers, such as changes that would indicate the risk of future disease. Smart molecules are being used to encapsulate specific nutrients in foods that would not normally contain them and as fat replacers and meat analogues, such as tofu. With 60 per cent of the adult population of the United Kingdom being either overweight or obese, wealthy economies require more foods that are almost non-digestible, whereas poorer economies require foods that are rich in energy and nutrients. The food industry, from plough to plate, has truly excelled in delivering the most amazing variety of high-quality foods to the British consumer, but the governments of the world have singularly failed to feed humanity as it needs to be fed.

Even in the UK there is a strong case for ensuring that consumers have the opportunity to select foods fortified with particular nutrients to ensure the eating of a balanced diet that is appropriate to a particular activity level, age, culture, genotype, lifestyle, occupation or sex. All women of child-bearing age can reduce the risk of giving birth to a baby with neural tube defects if they can maintain an adequate folate status and the enzymic ability to handle folate.

Across the world, there is an urgent need for foods fortified with iodine, iron and vitamin A. More recently, functional foods have been developed with ingredients that provide a health-promoting function that extends beyond the basic provision of human nutrients. These include substances to lower cholesterol uptake, such as stanols; live bacteria, such as bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, in probiotic foods; and bacterial nutrients such as inulin to promote a healthy gut ecosystem in prebiotic foods. With nutraceuticals even the artificial boundary between drugs and foods has disappeared.

Genetic engineering is here to stay, and nothing could be smarter than mediating change through modification of the architect's plans rather than imposing it on the finished building. Many of our chemotherapies are neutralised because they are imposed externally rather than evoked within the balanced metabolic machine.

This is a time for cautious movement. The opportunities are tremendous but the risks are proportional to the power of the technology. The human genome gave us the addresses but not the occupations of all the residents. When we have this data, functional foods can be directed towards specific genetic groups with known health expectations. The future can be bright, but advanced technology can thrive only in an informed society. In the Department of Trade and Industry Foresight programme, the critical drivers for the future in diet and health were identified as adoption of technology and effectiveness of communication.

But even a trustworthy ship of progress will founder on the rocks of ignorance. It is for government, science and industry to earn that trust, for mass media to respect the evidence and for consumers to demand the truth.

Robert Pickard is director-general of the British Nutrition Foundation ( ) and emeritus professor of neurobiology at the University of Wales Cardiff.

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