Clare M. Hasler

Nutraceuticals and functional foods represent one of the leading topics in the food industry today. Regardless of what we call these physiologically active foods or food components, what is important is whether there is credible science to substantiate the health benefits they are purported to deliver to the consuming public.

Fortunately, sound science is recognized as a critical driving factor in the functional food/nutraceutical industry. In Nutrition Business Journal’s recent 3rd Annual CEO survey, products “proven by science” or “based on science and of high quality with visible results” was cited by senior executives as a key factor to the future success of the industry. In the December/January 2002 Issue of New Nutrition Business, Michael Heasman and Julian Mellentin outline three key dynamics driving the development of functional foods: consumer and lifestyle changes, economic imperatives, and new nutrition science. They identify one of the primary routes through which functional foods are currently being developed as “leveraging hidden nutritional assets,” i.e., research which facilitates the discovery of intrinsic health benefits of existing components of our traditional food supply.

The University of Illinois (U of I) has been a leader in functional foods/nutraceuticals research for more than a decade. The Functional Foods for Health (FFH) Program—a joint program between the Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and Chicago (UIC) campuses—involves nearly 100 faculty members involved in uncovering the intrinsic health benefits of traditional agricultural commodities and other natural products. For example, under the direction of Elizabeth Jeffery, UIUC was one of six academic institutions to receive recent funding from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems. This 4-year multi-institutional research effort, which also involves researchers at Purdue University, the University of Missouri, and USDA’s Nutrition Laboratory at Grand Forks, N. Dak., is examining component interactions for efficacy of four functional foods: tomatoes, broccoli, berries, and soy.

Soy has long been a major focus of functional food research within the FFH Program. U of I researchers were the first to clinically document that soy and its associated isoflavones may have a beneficial effect on bone density in post-menopausal women. A clinical trial is underway to assess the cardiovascular benefits of soy in African-American women—a group never before studied in this regard and who are at disproportionately higher risk of heart disease mortality and morbidity compared to white women. The university also houses the National Soybean Research Laboratory, the International Soybean Program, and the Illinois Soy Foods Center.

Functional foods may also encompass products enhanced with botanical ingredients. One need only to look at the plethora of herbal-enhanced beverages in the marketplace today (and the food industry conglomerates acquiring such products) to realize that this is a significant area of market activity. However, this is also a controversial arena in terms of regulatory, safety, and efficacy.

The U.S. market for herbal products grew at a frenzied, double-digit pace between 1995 and 1998, spurred in large part by passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which allowed companies to make statements of nutritional support (structure/function claims) without pre-approval by the Food and Drug Administration. However, a variety of regulatory concerns, including the issue of conventional foods labeled as dietary supplements, contributed to a significant drop in the herbal market in 2001. There are also unresolved safety, efficacy, and quality control issues.

UIC boasts one of the premier pharmacognosy research groups under the direction of Norman Farnsworth, who also developed the world’s leading natural products database, NAPRALERT. In 1999, UIC was awarded one of the first botanicals center grants in the U.S. from the National Institutes of Health. The 5-year, $7.9-million UIC/NIH Center for Botanicals Dietary Supplements Research is focusing on the role of 11 herbs in women’s health: black cohosh, red clover, chaste berry, hops, cranberry, black haw, dong quai, Asian ginseng, licorice, ginkgo, and valerian. Such research efforts will be critical in clarifying safety, efficacy, and regulatory issues for botanical products.

Although functional foods and nutraceuticals hold tremendous promise for the welfare of the public, claims about their health benefits must be based on sound and accurate scientific criteria, including rigorous studies of safety and efficacy. Interactions with other dietary components and potential adverse interactions also need to be adequately addressed. Only when all of these issues are carefully considered can functional foods and nutraceuticals become an effective strategy to maximize health and reduce disease risk in many consumers.

Assistant Professor of Nutrition
Founding Director, Functional Foods for Health Program
University of Illinois