EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, has begun to adopt close checks on nutraceuticals, foods claimed to have special nutritional properties: foods enriched with vitamins to fight cholesterol, foods that increase immunitary defenses, foods that stimulate natural physiological functions and so on.
The question is of great interest insofar as a large section of the population would certainly benefit from the presence of the market of nutraceuticals functional to given situations. It will be necessary however to verify the effectiveness of these foods carefully to avoid their turning into a commercial strategy for the sale of industrial by-products, to the detriment—yet again—of the ones with which Mother Nature has always provided us.
It may not be a coincidence that nutraceuticals are in the news at a moment in time in which the consumer is rediscovering direct contact with the food producer. There is a lot of talk these days of ‘short supply chains’, ‘earth markets’, ‘group purchasing organisations’, ‘zero-mile food’ and so on. But, inasmuch as they result directly from the produce of the farmer, who is unable to modify the nutritional characteristics of foodstuffs, these concepts are the antithesis of industrialized food.
In this sense, nutraceuticals can be seen as a commercial strategy implemented by food companies to regain the added value of agriculture. As usual, the supply chain envisages a farmer who produces ‘raw material’ that is then processed into food (functional or otherwise) by industry, which then grabs the relative added value.
It is important to point out that nutraceuticals on the market are the result of the additino or removal of special substances to or from the foods we eat everyday. The problem will grow bigger with the arrival of ‘Transgenic Nutraceuticals’.
I refer, for example, to the much publicized Golden Rice, a vitamin A-enriched rice which will allegedly save millions of children from blindness; the vitamin A-enriched tomato which is supposed to prevent the formation of any type of cancer; the Indian corn genetically modified for the production of D-chiro-inositol, which is going to be used to treat diabetes mellitus. The list could go on and on, for scientific research is strongly committed to the the development of these nutraceuticals, all of them of course, subject to patenting!
In general terms, the biggest problem for the nutraceuticals sector is food quality, since the addition/removal of given substances might alter nutritional content.
This is where nutritional problems become more complicated. For example, if we don’t find ourselves in front of exactly the same foodstuff, can we use it the same way as we would the conventional one? Do we receive the same amount of nutrition? Thanks to the presence of ‘fortifying substances’, could the nutraceutical reduce the likelihood of catching a certain disease? And will the possiblity of catching other diseases remain the same or will it decrease or increase? Can our everyday diet stay the same or will it have to undergo changes in relation to the presence of a functional food that, besides the addition/removal of nutrition, comprises other nutritional effects?
Ultimately, aware of the fact that it’s not a question of good or bad foods but of good or bad food regimes, when the consumer uses a ‘functional food’ in his everyday diet, will this increase or decrease the probability of a balanced diet in terms of the provision of basic nutrients? Will the probability that his state of health remains steady at a good level or indeed improves, as hoped, increase or decrease?
Claudio Malagoli teaches at the Department of Agrarian Economico and Engineering of the University of Bologna and the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo
Adapted by John Irving