Mark R. McLellan

What do the terms functional foods and nutraceuticals mean? Why does this subject conjure up so much excitement for the future?

Are we talking about hocus-pocus science or real investigations? Who is involved? Are we talking only about herbs and oils? Why are nutritionists looking at this area? Why are engineers running their calculations? Why are law professors cringing with apprehension? There are far more questions than answers.

If we ask people in our field what functional foods and nutraceuticals are, we get an amazing array of responses—everything from herbal extracts to functional ingredients, from nutritionally improved common items to exotic oils only found in ingredients grown in the rain forests of Costa Rica!

What is clear is that much of our science community is split between embracing this area of study or discarding it—each with passionate reasons. That sounds to me like the very reason we should examine, explore, and study the topic.

Consumers say they strongly believe in the health-promoting benefits of functional foods. Much of this is due to a consumer base with long experience in the safe, high-quality food production in this country, as well as a trust in the pharmaceutical world and a belief that medicine leads to improved heath and quality of life. Consumers are adamant that we in the profession seek crucial links between diet and health. They are hungry to learn about foods that can help them live healthier and longer lives.

I suggest that we take a broad view with an appreciation for the science and the need for continued work in this area. Functional foods/nutraceuticals describe a broad attempt to seek out, develop, and refine foods and food ingredients with characteristics generally targeted at improved diet and hence improved health and/or quality. Additionally, we could include unique functional properties related to physical, chemical, or microbial environment. We need not, and indeed must not, accept this new area of research blindly. Simply put, good science deserves our support and interest, while quackery deserves our scrutiny and its exposure.

Functional foods and nutraceuticals are not defined in a court of law, but how many of us would wish a court to pass judgment on the efficacy or value of our research or product? This area of research includes the search for bioactive components that may through inclusion in the diet improve our health beyond what may typically be expected. These claims typically relate to structure–function relationships describing the effects on the body. They could also be claims of effectiveness regarding certain diseases.

This area of research might include the development of highly active and functional ingredients, either extracted from a source currently found in our food supply or designed and developed using genetic manipulation of crops or animals. As our science of genetic manipulation moves from deciphering genetic code to designing genetic code, we will move to an area of food genomics, which will deliver significantly enhanced foods and food ingredients.

Biochemists, botanists, geneticists, and nutritionists the world over are involved in this area of research. Engineers are facing the daunting challenges to design systems to deal with extraction, separation, and refinement of chemistries and components of interest.

It has been suggested that the Institute of Food Technologists should consider the establishment of a new division that represents the interests of members involved in this area. Many have spoken eloquently pro and con on the issue, for the benefit of the Institute.

This may be an opportunity for IFT members to ask, What is the future of divisions and sections? What should define the parameters around which we start up a section or division and on which they continue to function? Are there divisions that should be designed to be short-lived rather than permanent?

These are heady issues and not ones that I would suggest to answer here. However, we should all wish to strengthen IFT. We all have a responsibility to help reshape IFT daily into the strongest, most respected society in the field of food science. We must look to make IFT stronger, more agile, more responsive, more detailed, and more respected.

Change is never easy but can be very rewarding. A lack of change will generally lead to stale thinking and weary ideas. As IFT members talk about functional foods and nutraceuticals as an area of focus, we might want to take a broad acceptance of what this area represents as a potential. By doing so, we just might see a multiplication of our influence, excitement, and interest in the eyes of consumers, academics, and industry members.

by Mark R. McLellan is Director, Institute of Food Science & Engineering, Texas A&M University, College Station.