There is no universal definition of functional foods; however, several Washington, D.C.-based organizations have defined this food category. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation says functional foods provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition. This resembles International Life Sciences Institute of North America's definition that says functional foods, by virtue of physiologically active food components, provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences limits functional foods to those in which the concentrations of one or more ingredients have been manipulated or modified to enhance their contribution to a healthful diet.
These definitions are meant to provide guidance to marketers and product developers. Oddly, no product labels carry the phrase "functional food," so I say toss the formality, as well as the fears that accompany the concept. Indeed, many have cautioned the dairy industry about what they put into dairy foods to make them "functional," and even more on what claims they make. As a former Catholic school girl, it's almost as if the fear of God, or for an analogy, the fear of regulatory police, was instilled upon dairy marketers.
Again, forget the formality and the fears and give consumers what they want. The function of food is to provide consumers with sound nutrition and the good things their bodies need.
Why this opinion at this time? It's because the dreaded has happened. Probiotics have moved beyond dairy and supplements to breakfast cereal. Kashi Co., a part of Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., is rolling out Kashi™ Vive™ Probiotic Digestive Wellness Cereal. "We are thrilled to introduce the very first shelf-stable probiotic [food] product that aids the digestive system well beyond the traditional inclusion of fiber," says Sarah Lowrey, nutritionist for Kashi. "Digestive ailments, ranging from constipation to colon cancer, affect more than 70 million Americans. We recognized that nonperishable food products capable of promoting digestive health beyond just regularity were not available in the marketplace. We are confident that Kashi Vive cereal will meet the consumer demand for foods that not only taste great, but also provide short- and long-term digestive health benefits."
It's this quote that should motivate the dairy industry. "While the proven benefits of probiotics have already been embraced by many Asian and European countries, most American consumers have heard very little about the benefits of probiotics . . . ," says Lowrey.
Is the time right for probiotics in dairy? Yes!!! (Check out the probiotic cheese in this month's New Product Review.)
To aid public understanding of emerging research on probiotics, IFIC has issued the Functional Foods Fact Sheet: Probiotics and Prebiotics.
"As consumers become ever more interested in how particular foods or food components can play a role in reducing the risk for certain diseases, it is helpful to put the body of scientific research into perspective" says Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, director of health and nutrition at IFIC. "This fact sheet helps to sort out the emerging science about how pro- and prebiotics work in our bodies."
The fact sheet details the specific actions and benefits of probiotics and prebiotics, including how the gastrointestinal tract functions. Download it from: http://www.ific.org/publications/factsheets/preprobioticsfs.cfm.
In addition, Dairy Management Inc., Rosemont, Ill., offers the industry a new guide that provides a basic understanding of nutrition claims and labeling rules. Use it to review key terms associated with claims; understand the types of claims available for dairy products; and clarify the regulations associated with these claims. Download it from: http://www.innovatewithdairy.com/InnovateWithDairy/Articles/QRG_Launchpage_2006.htm.
Just how functional are dairy foods? They will only be functional if the dairy industry adds the good stuff and explains their function to consumers . . . or else, another industry will, sooner than later.