Science-based evidence supporting food health claims is of growing importance to industry and society. An overwhelming number of publications point out that an appropriate lifestyle is the basis of personal healthcare, and consuming a healthy diet is an important contributor to disease prevention.
Accordingly, “nutritional healthcare” has become a main driver for innovation in the food and beverage industry. Recent market research shows that out of every 1,000 new food and beverage product launches, more than 700 are accompanied by a claim that the product supports health or a specific body function.
Poor diet choices, especially when combined with an inactive lifestyle, are known to be associated with a variety of chronic diseases, such as obesity, heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, impaired mental function and diabetes. Research and development insights must be reconciled with business matters; this requires scientific knowledge. Of course, this work must be done in harmony with other key insights, including the understanding of the behavior, health concerns, food choices and health/illness perceptions of consumers.
One of the areas where Maastricht University aims at developing science-based evidence for food health claims is “superfruits.” Over the past decade, numerous publications have described the high content of bioactive compounds, most importantly polyphenols, in all kinds of fruits, and their effects on health. Blueberries, cranberries, pomegranates, etc., have all been addressed and discussed. Many of these publications are based on animal work and in vitro studies using human cell lines exposed to fruit extracts. Most of these studies have pointed to potentially strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer and bone remodeling effects that presumably support the prevention of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and osteoporosis.
As a result of these developments, the food industry has started to market fruits that are very high in antioxidants as “superfruits” or “powerfruits,” using antioxidant capacity values established in vitro (ORAC—oxygen radical absorption capacity) for comparative quality reasons. Numerous articles in the popular press have also piqued public interest in the variety of products and beverages launched in the market, and their supposed benefits to human health.
Other publications are critical of researchers making claims on human benefits based on the results of animal work. Because of these doubts, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) has not definitively allowed health claims about antioxidants in general.
Despite the criticisms and the strict attitude of EFSA, there is a growing body of scientific evidence pointing to a range of benefits derived from the consumption of polyphenols and superfruits on various human health and functional outcomes. These studies indicate that small amounts of biologically available substances may be sufficient to result in favorable health and function effects.
For example, Basu et al. (J Nutr. 2010;Sep;140(9):1582-7. Epub 2010 Jul 21), examined the effects of blueberry supplementation on lipid-peroxidation and inflammation in 48 obese men and women with metabolic syndrome. The authors concluded that blueberries may improve selected features of metabolic syndrome and related cardiovascular risk factors at dietary achievable doses. Krikorian et al. (Br J Nutr. 2010 Mar;103(5):730-4. Epub 2009 Dec 23) studied the effects of Concord grape juice supplementation for 12 weeks on 12 older adults with memory decline (but not dementia) in a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial. They observed significant improvement in the measure of verbal learning and non-significant enhancement of verbal and spatial recall.
At Maastricht University, researchers are studying various aspects of “superfruits,” such as the molecular mechanisms of action and the impact of fruit bioactives on inflammatory gene expression. Nutrigenomics studies are carried out to establish health effects. Researchers take into account public health ramifications, for instance, concerning possible effects of fruit sugars.
During the international symposium and trade exhibition in the Netherlands in June 2012, researchers will review the effects of Vaccinium species (blueberry, cranberry, huckleberry) and other superfruits on health, function and disease. They willl address the need for crop enhancement in terms of bioactives composition, processing technology, health claim substantiation, food and beverage applications, and global/regional market developments.
The NUTRIM School for Nutrition, Toxicology and Metabolism of Maastricht University Medical Centre is one of the organizers of this “10th International Vaccinium and Other Superfruits Symposium and Exhibition.” The program will include site visits, enabling participants to experience the local harvesting and production scenes and enjoy the cultural beauty, as well as scientific conferences and a trade exposition. A strong aspect of the program will be the combination of science and entrepreneurship and business development related to innovations in the soft fruit sector.
This post is a reprint of an article that appeared in Food for Thought, a newsletter from the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency that reports on agrofood activities and advances within the Netherlands.