Role of Research

Functional foods currently on the market represent a small fraction of the possible products. Additional research is needed in many areas to ensure that this emerging science continues to be valid and is rapidly translated into consumer- relevant products.

Types of Research Needed
The vast potential for functional foods will not be achieved without extensive scientific research to ensure the safety and efficacy of these products.

Scientific literature reports almost daily on new insights into the role of existing nutrients, advances in identifying bioactive compounds and their health benefits, and the intersection of genomics and nutrition science in personalized nutrition.

Nutrients and Bioactive Substances
Continued basic and applied nutritional research must pursue a more precise understanding of the mechanisms of action for known nutrients, their doseresponse relationship, the clinical outcomes, and individual variations in response.

New and Existing Biomarkers
In functional foods research, biomarkers are usually biological endpoints that directly correlate with health status or with exposure to specific food components. Surrogate markers relate directly to disease development and can be used in place of a disease endpoint. In reality, scientists have very few well-defined and accepted biomarkers or surrogate markers.

Scientists need to identify additional biomarkers that signal changes in health status and then determine the meaning of changes in those biomarkers relative to a defined health condition. In addition, exposure markers are needed to assess intake, bioavailability, and utilization of potential functional food components. The relationship between genes and gene products and disease risk is an emerging area that must be pursued.

Food Vehicles for Bioactive Ingredients
Additional research should identify and tailor foods for delivery of bioactive ingredients. The criteria for such research should include: provision of a stable environment for the bioactive ingredient; knowledge of the interactions between the bioactive ingredient and other ingredients in the vehicle matrix; maximization of the bioactive ingredient’s health benefit; maintenance of the bioavailability of the bioactive ingredient; and desirable sensory/organoleptic characteristics.

Food Composition and Dietary Intake Databases
Retrospective cohort studies using dietary intake databases such as the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) can be useful in identifying relationships between diet and health. USDA food component databases should be expanded and updated as better analytical methods become available. It is equally important that the government continue to fund and support the National Center for Health Statistics NHANES research on health status and dietary practices.

Nutrigenomics and Function of Bioactive Components
The intersection of genomics and molecular nutrition presents opportunities to understand nutrient effects and individual variability in response to diet; this understanding has the potential to revolutionize diet, nutrition and food products, and health care.

Nutrigenomics may disrupt established ways of thinking about nutrition, food, the value chain of the food industry, and the role of industry in health care. Mass customization—the ability to provide nutrient plans and products based on the interaction of genetics and diet for groups and individuals—will soon be scientifically possible.

Ethics, Regulatory, and Legal Implications of Nutrigenomics Research
This new paradigm raises legal and ethical questions based on development and handling of personal genetic data and changes the boundary between foods and drugs from a clear line to a continuum. Privacy of genetic information and the limitations of decisions that can be made based on knowledge of an individual’s genetic profile have been debated within the context of pharmaceutical applications. As we move into the era of nutrigenomics and individualized diets, protecting the privacy of individuals may become an issue.

Meeting these challenges will require new regulatory paradigms and new food industry and health care value chains. A legal, ethical and societal framework must be developed to ensure genetic information about food and disease is appropriately handled.

Expanded Incentives for Health and Nutrition Research
Appropriate incentives to the food industry would greatly enhance the development of functional foods. Food companies have traditionally funded research for new food product formulations, but for functional foods the stakes are higher for both the food companies and consumers. The research required for a functional food to meet scientific standards for efficacy is a substantial investment, but the return on that investment is not exclusive to that company. As soon as the health claim is adequately documented, competing companies can use the claim. Incentives such as a period of exclusivity or tax incentives would encourage food companies to pursue functional food development as a profitable venture.


Recognizing the tremendous health benefits offered by functional foods, the Institute of Food Technologists commissioned an expert panel to review the available scientific literature related to functional food development. The panel’s report is divided into nine sections: Definitions, Introduction, Food and Genes, Current Legal Standards, Scientific Standards, Policy Limitations, Bringing Functional Foods to Market, Role of Research, and Conclusions. Copies of the report are available at www.ift.org. Founded in 1939, the Institute of Food Technologists is an international not-for-profit scientific society for food science and technology.