Functional foods need closer monitoring - experts

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Functional foods, Sterol, Phytosterol, Cholesterol

Functional foods need systematic monitoring because not enough is
known about their long-term safety and effectiveness, Dutch
scientists have stated.

Writing in the British Medical Journal​, Nynke de Jong from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and colleagues stress the importance of post-monitoring functional foods to confirm their efficacy and safety in free-living populations. Functional foods, modified foods that claim to improve health, quality of life and/or well being, are a rapidly growing segment of the food industry. Between January and April 2005 200 functional foods were launched onto the market and global sales were estimated at €54.3bn (£36.9bn; $73.5bn). Sales are reported to have slowed slightly since then, but many experts still believe sales will hit €124bn ($167bn) in 2010. The Dutch scientists draw attention to the gap that exists between evaluating the safety of these foods before they reach the supermarket (as required by EU rules) and a lack of regulations dealing with issues that may arise after launch. There is "little understanding of the circumstances under which the foods are eaten, whether target groups are reached, and if targeted education programmes or health policies should be recommended. Very little is known about exposure, long term or otherwise, and safety under free conditions of use, and whether and how functional foods interfere with drugs designed for the same target,"​ they wrote. The scientists stress that there is no evidence to date that such foods may cause harm, but they note that the data is limited to 5-6 years of use. But they say scientific developments with food and pharmacology are ongoing and so data supported assessments are now possible. De Jong and co-workers pay specific attention to phytosterol and stanol-enriched products, seen as one of the great success stories of functional food segment: Numerous clinical trials in controlled settings have reported that daily consumption of 1.5 to 3 grams of phytosterols/-stanols can reduce total cholesterol levels by eight to 17 per cent, representing a significant reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease. The same researchers published a report in this month's Journal of Nutrition stating that the plant sterol or stanol-enriched margarines do stabilise cholesterol levels in a free-living population, while concerns over adverse effects seem unfounded at present with lower than recommended intakes being observed. Nevertheless, blood levels of the plant sterols sitosterol and campesterol were found to increase significantly, and it is not known if such increased serum sterol concentrations may result in adverse side effects. In the BMJ, the scientists state that many people consuming the enriched-products may also be taking medications to lower cholesterol levels. They warn: "Functional foods may influence the effectiveness of drugs and patients' compliance."​ The scientists say a systematic monitoring programme would mean the public could ultimately have access to practical and unbiased information about when, how and if to eat functional foods. "We need to invest more in finding out what functional foods can contribute to individual and public health in relation to the promises made by manufacturers,"​ they concluded. Source: British Medical Journal​ Volume 334, Pages 1037-39 "Functional foods: the case for closer evaluation" ​Authors: N. de Jong, H. Verhagen, M.C.J. Wolfs, M.C. Ocké, O.H. Klungel, H.G.M. Leufkens

Related topics: Research

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