20 Feb 2012
A full house squeezed into University College London's Ramsay Lecture Theatre on 10 January to hear Bob Rastall's fascinating talk on a modern controversy: functional foods. With obesity on the increase, and a balanced diet an almost mythical aspiration, can functional foods, such as probiotic yoghurts and milk drinks, provide a supplementary aid to a healthy lifestyle?
There has been a lot of negative press about these products of late, suggesting they are nothing more than an example of ingenious marketing departments responding to the public's desire for a healthy shortcut. And for numerous lesser-known products, explained Rastall, this may be the case, having found no empirical evidence to suggest beneficial effects beyond adequate nutrition that functional foods purport to offer.
However, examining the more familiar products available, containing well researched bacteria such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, Rastall and his team at the University of Reading have indeed found there to be benefits, both in staving off illnesses, and recovering from them.
As well as probiotics, the audience was informed of the potential of prebiotics which, still in its relative infancy, is a growing area which is beginning to see positive results. We were also told of other functional foods with specific targets, such as plant sterols to reduce cholesterol, dairy peptides and flavanols to help reduce hypertension, and the flavonoids in blueberries potentially enhancing cognitive functions.
The negative press surrounding this array of products may have been an overreaction to evaluations such as that by the European Food Safety Authority, which rejected most of the claims submitted to it. But these should be taken in context, and individual cases understood fully, rather than the whole market being judged together.
There are, of course, examples of apparent marketing hype, including not just probiotic yoghurts, but probiotic cosmetics, cleaning products, and even beds. But, as with most products, there is a range of quality from the ineffectual to the beneficial. This extremely interesting lecture provided an invaluable insight into both the public perception and the tested reality behind this intriguing nutritional debate.
As yet there is no data on the benefits of the complimentary doughnuts provided.