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It doesn't take a scientist to know that food keeps us alive, but scientists are only now beginning to unravel the subtleties of how some foods can keep us healthy. And the results of that research are being published not just in scientific journals, but also on the labels of groceries.
In the United States, a dozen different types of foodstuffs can feature this kind of information on their packaging, including government-sanctioned claims that such products can lower a consumer's cholesterol levels, reduce the chances of developing heart disease or prevent osteoporosis. These strong assertions have established a new category of "functional" foods, which offer benefits that go well beyond simple nutrition.
"Nutrition as a discipline is used to taking a rap, where many of the food ingredients that we consume have been touted as contributing to increased disease risk," says dietetics and human nutrition professor Peter Jones. "The appearance of functional foods means that now what you do eat may indeed be more important than what you don't eat."
He was speaking on Parliament Hill last week, introducing the topic for an audience made up largely of Canadian MPs and other government representatives.
His talk, "Functional Foods: Snake Oil ... or the Grand Elixir," marked the launch of the 2000-2001 Bacon and Eggheads breakfast speaker series, which is sponsored by the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering and NSERC.
Jones portrayed the prospects of functional foods to be highly promising, though he acknowledged that the findings of researchers can appear to be too good to be true.
For example, the Omega 3 egg, created by chickens given feed rich in the n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids found in fish oils, has been shown to have a positive effect on seven distinct health problems: coronary heart disease, fatty acid deficiency, autoimmune disorders such as lupus, type II diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and three types of cancer.
"It sounds a bit like snake oil, but actually these studies have been carefully constructed and there is an increasing consensus of opinion that n-3 fats really are good for us," he says.
Jones's own research has pointed to the possible health benefits of a margarine containing phytosterol, a vegetable-derived cholesterol that seems to hinder the absorption of animal-source cholesterols, a chief culprit linked to heart disease.
Jones predicts that Americans will soon find health-related information on the labels of products where such fats exist naturally. The Food and Drug Administration of the United States has, for the past 10 years, led the world in legislation pertaining to the labeling of functional foods.
Developed countries have been following that lead, and since 1996 a joint committee within Health Canada has been working on standards for a similar system of adding such claims to food labels in this country.
Jones pointed to the FDA as a useful role model. They've been strict so far, insisting on sound scientific evidence and only approving the health claims of a few foods.
"The regulatory framework has to both allow the opportunities for these foods to exist, while at the same time face the challenge to protect consumers against false or unsafe claims," he said, later pointing out that key distinctions had already been drawn between functional foods and the much broader field of natural health products, where health claims remain sharply confined.
Nevertheless, Jones insisted that Canadians will be formally introduced to functional foods, and that their designation on our grocery store shelves will be much more than another dietary fad.
"I believe we are in the midst of a continuing evolution where, as with many countries, here in Canada we'll soon see actual health claims present on food materials," he said. "The consumer and Canadian society stand to benefit from functional foods -- to increase health and wellness, and also, thereby, to reduce the cost to health care."