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Throughout our global community, eating habits are changing, but not always for the better. In recent years, increased rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer and allergies have been directly linked to the poor choices in the foods we eat. At the same time, however, a growing awareness of the potentially beneficial effects of healthy foods, including functional foods, is leading millions of people adopt better eating habits and to shun unhealthy food products in favor of those that can support a healthier life.
The concept of functional foods may not be new, but the term is now getting widespread attention as food producers and distributors explore ways to meet growing consumer demand for foods that can have a positive impact on human health. But producers of functional foods can face challenges in ensuring compliance with food safety requirements and regulations in jurisdictions around the world.
Based in India, Dr. Pritee Paliwal heads up TÜV SÜD’s Food, Health and Beauty (FHB) operations for South Asia, focussing on operations and business development efforts. Paliwal joined TÜV SÜD earlier this year after more than a decade in the FHB industry and having served in technical and marketing positions for some of the industry’s leading players. She has long been interested in the effects of chemicals in food products, and the potential benefits of food nutrients in human health.
Pritee recently spoke with Food & Health E-ssentials about functional foods, their potential value in our diets, and the challenges of assessing functional food products for their safety and effectiveness.
Food & Health E-ssentials: Could you tell us about your position and the scope of your responsibilities at TÜV SÜD in India?
Dr. Pritee Paliwal: I’m currently TÜV SÜD’s Assistant Vice-President, FHB, South Asia, and direct all divisional operations within our food, health and beauty group. This includes our testing, inspection and certification services. In addition, I’m also responsible for managing our business development strategy for our group.
F&HE: How did you begin your career in the food industry, and what was your food industry experience prior to joining TÜV SÜD?
PP: I started my journey in food industry in 2002 during studies for my doctorate degree. Through this work, I learned a great deal about how the human system is patterned and how disruption of the oxidative stress can lead to diabetes. This initial work further sparked my interest in the connection between active molecules (natural ingredients/nutritional food), disease and management.
After receiving my doctorate, I became a senior scientist at a major corporation here in India where the major focus was on developing alternative and complementary natural products for human nutrition and wellbeing. During my 12 year tenure there, I combined my research experience and business development expertise to support our customers’ production of safe and effective nutritional foods.
Following that, I spent three years at a chemical-based company where I learned how bioingredients can be useful in food product such as jellies, sauces and cheese. Then, I moved to a major spice producer known for supplying ingredients to food, fragrance and flavour companies around the world. I worked directly with our clients to help create future-ready products that not only met consumer expectations but that helped to put consumer health first. (After all, a healthy diet is the first step to a healthy life!)
F&HE: I understand that you have a particular interest in functional foods. Just what are functional foods? And what is the difference between functional foods and other healthy foods?
PP: Actually, you could say that I’m passionate about the potential of functional foods. As you know, our current generation and the next generation have been able to trace the link between diet and health, and are more aware than ever of the ill-effects that a poor diet can have on our lives. This awareness has fueled the demand for food and beverage products that provide nutritional value. And, having been in the industry for more than a decade, I’m thrilled to see this development taking place.
Now, back to the question of what are “functional foods.” In general, functional foods are foods and food components that provide a health benefit beyond basic nutrition. Functional foods may include conventional foods, fortified, enriched or enhanced foods, and dietary supplements. These substances provide essential nutrients that often exceed the minimum quantities necessary for normal maintenance, growth and development, and may also include other biologically-active components that impart to us certain health benefits or desirable physiological effects.
F&HE: Can you give us some examples of common functional foods that our readers might be familiar with?
PP: Oatmeal is a commonly-cited example of a functional food. Because it contains soluble fiber, it can aid in digestion while also helping to lower cholesterol levels in some people. Other functional foods are conventional products that have been modified to increase potential health benefits, such as orange juice to which calcium has been added to potentially improve bone strength. Other examples of functional foods include yogurt, tomatoes and tomato products, nuts, grape juices, leafy greens, probiotics and soy-functional components (including phytochemicals such as isoflavones and genistein, and soy protein).
F&HE: What are some of the benefits of functional foods as part of a normal healthy diet?
PP: Functional foods are foods that have a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition. Proponents of functional foods say they promote optimal health and help reduce the risk of disease. The advantages of eating functional foods are that they are generally healthier to eat than other foods and provide you with essential nutrients that your body needs to remain healthy. Some functional foods can also help to protect us from certain types of diseases and from different forms of cancer.
F&HE: Are there any safety issues specifically related to functional foods? If so, what are they?
PP: Yes! The use of functional foods can lead to health and safety concerns if certain novel ingredients/additives are used that lack sufficient clinical data to substantiate their benefits. Whenever, any natural, identical substance is used in a food, the ingredient should be clinically evaluated and approved prior to use. In addition, established limits for any food additive, such as the so-called GRAS (generally recognised as safe) limits, should be followed to avoid possible adverse reactions.
F&HE: Are functional foods regulated in India or other countries? If so, what types of regulations are applicable?
PP: Yes! The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has published notifications in the Gazette of India regulating the safety of functional food. Japan was the first country in the world to introduce regulations related to functional food. But today, many countries, including the European Union and the United States have regulations specific to functional foods.
F&HE: What are some of the steps that producers of functional foods can take to address potential safety issues associated with the consumption of functional foods?
PP: It is essential for producers of functional food to substantiate the claimed health benefit, or benefits, of their products. In addition to presenting safety data consistent with regulations applicable to most food products, functional foods may be subject to additional safety testing consistent with the food’s efficacy in delivering the claimed health benefits.
To achieve this, it is important to design trials for evaluating the efficacy of the product, and to establish the extent of the potential health benefit. The essential requirement in assessing the efficacy of functional foods is that they are intended to maintain health. Studies using human subjects are required in order to assess both the beneficial and adverse effects of functional foods.
It is also important to select an appropriate set of biomarkers to monitor the results of exposure. Biomarkers should be relevant to the intended health claim and to the mechanism of action. For example, if the functional food is intended to control blood glucose levels, participants are monitored for blood glucose levels over a period of time and any benefits arising out of consumption of the product can be assessed.
F&HE: What TÜV SÜD food testing and inspection services are applicable to functional foods?
PP: TÜV SÜD offers chemical and microbiological testing of functional foods, along with assistance in nutritional profiling and labelling. Our experts can also conduct evaluations on the shelf stability of functional food products, as well as help with the design and wording of claims used on food labels.
F&HE: Finally, how can TÜV SÜD help producers and distributors in their efforts to bring safe functional foods to consumers in India and around the world?
PP: We can support producers by offering our expert services in labeling and testing of products. In addition, claim evaluation studies in the product can be conducted by us. We can assess the product for presence of contaminants, residues and microbial pathogens to ensure that a safe product reaches consumers.