25 April, 2006
Functional Foods for
Mind and Body
With all of the decisions we make every day -- work, family, relationships,
household, finances -- what we eat should not be one of the most
difficult. I know we all have the best of intentions when it comes
to eating healthy, but with diet trends, genetically modified foods,
conflicting studies, and clever marketing, the choice of what to
eat has become mind numbing. Some choices just sound so contrary
that it's hard to know what's a good diet choice and what's just
a good news stories. For instance:
The recent article,
A Microscopic worm may be the key to heart-friendly bacon, is
a good example of how confusing food choice can be. The article
explains that scientists have successfully used DNA from the roundworm,
C. elegans, to get cloned, genetically engineered pigs to produce
omega-3 fatty acids.
Although according to the FDA spokeswoman cited in the article,
it will be several years before this bacon hits the shelves, this
new and "improved" bacon raises some very interesting
• Is this bacon a bad thing because as humans
we try and avoid contact with roundworms since they can live in
our intestines causing nausea and vomiting
Not necessarily - It is a bit disconcerting since roundworms
cause illness in humans through eating contaminated foods (mostly
raw and fermented fish) and from touching our eyes with contaminated
hands, but we are talking about DNA not worms (or larvae). Scientists
are using DNA from roundworms to trigger these pigs to produce
a higher ratio of healthy fat; they are not actually using roundworms
or roundworm fat.
• Is this bacon a bad thing because the pigs
are cloned and genetically engineered?
Not necessarily -- Genetic engineering (in its broadest sense)
has been going on for thousands of years. All of the different
varieties of vegetable seeds, rose bushes, fruits and vegetables
that you buy in the supermarket are the result of genetic engineering
in the form of cross pollination. Consider that companies are
also developing omega-3-producing crops in hopes of making healthier
cooking oils. Molecular breeding, gene splicing, and cloning
may be newer, but the concept is the same -- manipulating nature
-- in this case to make healthier bacon. Don't get me wrong.
There are some "very disturbing" concerns.
• Is this bacon a bad thing because it's still
Not necessarily -- People are going to eat bacon. Bacon is
fatty. So having a bacon option that offers a healthier fat
in the form of omega-3 fatty acids isn't such a bad idea.
Understand that this science isn't all about bacon; the article
announcing the new bacon explains that researchers hope to genetically
improve the omega-3 content in pork, then improve it in chickens
and cows. Yet the concept of bacon fat being good for your heart
is almost as confusing as beer being hyped as a healthy dietary
choice -- even against cancer.
If you saw the recent articles Beer
for Life or Beer
extracts reported to have anti-inflammatory effect, you may
still be scratching your head. Not that the articles weren't articulate
and informative; they were. Indeed, they reported a very interesting
new finding about beer consumption -- beer has an anti-inflammatory
A study published by Australian scientists in the journal International
Immunopharmacology (Vol. 6, pp. 390-395) examined the effects
of different beer extracts, including light beer, wheat beer, and
non-alcoholic beer, on the production of neopterin (a marker for
inflammation) and levels of tryptophan (since low levels are associated
with more inflammation). In in vitro experiments using phytohaemagglutinin
(PHA) to stimulate inflammation, researchers tested blood levels
to determine changes noting that beer [with or without alcohol]
suppressed degradation of tryptophan and production of neopterin.
In other words, consumption of beer reduced inflammation according
to indicators. The results showed that while alcohol may be good
at killing germs, it isn't the compound in beer responsible
for these results, in fact, the results showed that the
type of beer was not important, and that a 4% solution could reduce
neopterin production by 65%.
While this may seem pretty straightforward, consider the implication
of the effect beer (an acknowledged and accepted depressant) has
on tryptophan levels (it keeps the level from falling). Researchers
noted that, "This suppression might be connected with the calming
effect of beer, since its normalizing effect on the tryptophan balance
improves the availability of the 'happiness hormone' serotonin."
Could beer be an anti-depressant? Could beer benefit kidney and
In 2003, researchers at Okayama University in Japan found that
mice that drank non-alcoholic beer while exposed to cancer-causing
chemicals had 85% less DNA damage to their liver, lung and kidneys
than those given water. The study
did not determine the exact compounds in beer responsible for the
chemo-protective actions, yet it did note that if the protective
compounds are identified they could be added to functional foods
So is genetically altered pork good food or bad?
I think that's actually the wrong question.
• Sure, pork with a better fat content is
better for you. But is mixing roundworm DNA with pigs the best
way to get there? And if you think there's no problem with it,
then would you be as happy with the idea of mixing roundworm DNA
with your own DNA so that your own body produced its own Omega-3
And besides, you don't have to create Frankenfood to get the
same result. Just improve the animals' diets and you get to the
same place naturally. For example, include flax seed in chickens'
diets and you get Omega-3 rich eggs. Grass feed your cattle and
you get high Omega-3 meat -- DNA alteration not required.
• And as for beer, there are many healthier
ways to reduce inflammation -- Omega-3 fatty acids being a prime
Which brings us to the point of this newsletter -- Functional
When we talk about the dietary values of foods, we are no longer
just talking about the vitamins and minerals and calories and cholesterol;
we are talking about the compounds within foods that offer health
functions beyond simple nutrition.
Thinking of foods in terms of health function offers a potential
that is actually very exciting, very empowering, yet not clearly
defined. Welcome to the world of Functional Foods. If you look at
The American Dietetic Association's website
they cite many definitions for Functional Foods, including:
•"Foods that provide health benefits
beyond basic nutrition." The International Food Information
•"Food similar in appearance to a conventional
food, consumed as part of the usual diet, with demonstrated physiological
benefits, and/or to reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond
basic nutritional functions." Health Canada.
•"Foods in which the concentrations of
one or more ingredients have been manipulated or modified to enhance
their contribution to a healthful diet." The Institute
of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
Or as the American Dietetic Association says:
• Knowledge of the role of physiologically
active food components, from both (plant) phytochemicals and (animal)
zoochemicals, has changed the role of diet in health. Functional
foods have evolved as food and nutrition science has advanced
beyond the treatment of deficiency syndromes to reduction of disease
And people are taking notice. A 2005 study conducted by the International
Food Information Council (IFIC) found that:
• 69% of consumers believe nutrition plays
a central role in maintaining/improving health.
• 83% are favorable to functional foods.
A March 27, 2006 article
(Consumers Connect the Dots Between Food and Health: Most Americans
are interested to learn more about foods that offer benefits beyond
basic nutrition) reported that Americans are beginning to recognize
the relationship that certain foods or food components may have
in reducing the risk of certain diseases:
• 92% of Americans recognize that fiber,
found in fruits, vegetables, and some breads and cereals, is good
for maintaining a healthy digestive system.
• 83% recognize that fiber may reduce the risk
of cancer, and 78% recognize that fiber may reduce the risk of
• 93% of Americans recognize that calcium,
found in milk, cheese, yogurt, and some fortified beverages, may
play a role in the promotion of bone health.
• 78% recognize that Omega-3 fatty acids, found
in some fish and fortified foods (i.e. eggs w/ omega-3), may reduce
the risk of heart disease.
• 57% recognize that lycopene, found in processed
tomato products, such as tomato sauce, may reduce the risk for
• Nearly half recognize that pre- and probiotics,
found in some fortified foods, such as yogurt and dairy beverages,
may aid in digestive health, and that soy protein may reduce the
risk of heart disease.
Supporting data tables for this information can be found at www.ific.org/newsroom/releases.
Sounds good. The people surveyed seem to have a good understanding
of how food choice can affect and effect health. Right?
Separating the wheat from the chaff
As always, not necessarily. In the above survey, the word "recognize"
should perhaps be substituted with the word "believe."
• People may "recognize" the value
of fiber, but not all fibers are created equal, a distinction
usually lost in translation. Some fibers (glucomannans) slow sugar
absorption, whereas other fibers (beta glucans) lower the risk
of heart disease. And some merely provide bulk (wheat bran).
• The calcium question is far more nuanced
than most people believe. More is not always better.
• And as for the calcium building benefits
of dairy, check out Dairy
• Omega-3 fatty acids are indeed hot right
now (small vindication for those who have been preaching their
virtue for decades), but most people are not aware that the real
problem is not a shortage of Omega-3's, but an imbalance in the
ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids. Having a candy bar with
a little extra "functional" Omega-3 fat in it won't
make a bit of difference if you're not making major changes in
the amount of Omega-6
fatty acids in your diet.
• People are certainly aware of the value of
lycopene, but almost no one seems to be aware that lycopene is
never found in isolation in nature, but as part of a carotenoid
complex. Much of its benefit derives from its interaction with
the other carotenoids.
And, beyond that, its effect is enhanced by the presence of a
complete vitamin E complex.
• And while more and more people recognize
the value of probiotics, those same people do not know that many
commercial yogurts actually heat their yogurt to eliminate all
trace of the probiotics -- to prolong shelf life.
And then there's bread, the "great" functional food.
When grain is made into refined white flour (primarily to prolong
shelf life), more than 30 essential nutrients are largely removed.
All fiber is removed. All of the wheat germ is removed. And all
essential fatty acids are removed. Only the starch is left.
Of the 30 natural nutrients removed, only synthesized B1, B2, B3,
and iron are put back in to create one of the first (dating back
to the early 1940's) "functional foods" -- "enriched"
flour. This truly is a creative definition of the word enriched
considering that "un-enriched" whole wheat flour contains
44% more vitamin E, 52% more pantothenic acid, 65% more folic acid,
76% more biotin, 84% more vitamin B6, not to mention more magnesium,
calcium, zinc, chromium, manganese, selenium, vanadium, and copper.
As for fiber, enriched white bread has just 25% as much as real
whole wheat. And much of the bread now marketed as "whole-wheat"
is in truth white bread with burnt sugar added for coloring. But
heck, several years ago, Fresh Horizons bread added sawdust to replace
the lost bran, calling it cellulose on the label and advertising
it as "high-fiber" bread.
How can this be? Quite simply, it is legal to describe flour as
"whole wheat" on the label, even when the bran and germ
have been removed. Which leads us to our conclusion -- let the buyer
The concept of functional foods is essentially a good one. When
we talk about the dietary values of foods, we are no longer limited
to talking about minimum levels of vitamins and minerals (often
synthetic) in highly processed foods. Finally, thanks to the emergence
of functional foods in the marketplace, we can now talk about optimized
levels of micro and macro nutrients -- and about the compounds within
those foods that offer health benefits beyond simple nutrition.
Unfortunately, along with the good, comes much that is bad.
• Adding roundworm DNA to pork does not make
it a health food -- merely less unhealthy.
• Adding sawdust to white flour does not make
it a high fiber health food -- merely an historical footnote as
a failed marketing concept.
• Adding 100% of the RDI of synthetic/processed
vitamins to denatured breakfast cereals dietary shakes and food
bars does not make them "complete balanced meals."
• Adding marginal amounts of Omega-3 fatty
acids to food bars does not correct the imbalance of Omega-6 to
Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet.
Unfortunately, when it comes to functional foods, we're kind of
in the "wild west" phase. There is little law and order,
and the frontier is ruled by brazen marketing gunmen and savage
scientists performing genetic experiments on unsuspecting animals
-- and the people that eat them. When it comes to buying functional
foods, the best I can offer you are some guidelines.
• When it comes to foods with added vitamins,
what's the food behind the added vitamins? If it's made with sugar
and processed grains and flours, adding all the vitamins in the
world won't make it healthy. And for that matter, in how many
different foods that you eat each day do you need 100% of your
RDI of all your vitamins (and mostly synthetic ones at that)?
• When it comes to Omega-3 fatty acid, how
much is being added, and what is it being added to? If it's being
added to sugar, flour, and other high Omega-6 oils such as corn,
safflower, and canola oil, what's the point?
• When it comes to fiber, does the food specify
where the fiber is coming from? Is it water soluble? Does it have
a "function" other than merely bulk such as lowering
sugar and cholesterol levels? How much is being added -- is it
enough to make a difference? And finally, is it digestible? If
it causes intestinal distress and a huge amount of gas, blow it
• When it comes to added herbs, what is the
quality of that herb? You can buy ginseng for as little as $5
a pound and put it on your functional food label. The good stuff,
the wild crafted or organic ginseng, costs $400-600 a pound. Which
one ended up in your functional food? Which one do you think actually
• When it comes to added nutraceuticals like
CoQ10, how much has been added? Is it just "pixie dust"
label dressing or is it actually present at functional levels
(30 mg minimum for CoQ10. 100 mg is better.)?
In the end, the best advice is to find a manufacturer you know and
trust and believe follows the above guidelines…and hope they
don't betray that trust. And conversely, if you find a manufacturer
blatantly breaking any of the rules in any one product, you can
probably abandon every other product they manufacture.
Oh yes, and as for the high Omega-3 pork -- when they also figure
out how to add brisket of beef DNA to make it Kosher, then let's