Image size 20 Kb Cutting-edge research into functional foodstuffs

The region around Turku has been regarded for centuries as the grain basket of Finland, a place that supplies a large share of the country's wheat and other cereals. A lot of vegetables and root crops are also grown there. All this has given birth to a sophisticated processing industry, which has played a pioneering role in introducing health-enhancing foodstuffs on the market. Turku is where both Raisio's cholesterol-lowering Benecol margarine and Leaf's caries-combatting xylitol originated.

Thus it is only natural to find top-level foodstuffs research being done at the University of Turku. The Department of Biochemistry and Food Chemistry there has had a strong involvement in studying such things as probiotes, of which the best- known to consumers are that stomach-friendly ingredient in milk products Lactobacillus GG. Xylitol products owe their genesis to research at the university's Department of Dental Science. Studying functional foodstuffs has for many years been one of the main areas of focus in the university's food-related research. The results have been so good that a consortium led by the University of Turku is now setting up a national functional foodstuffs development centre to promote cooperation and competence in the sector. Development of new-generation functional foodstuffs is being done in collaboration with natural and medical scientists, and the goals being pursued are clearly international.

Demanding, time-consuming research

Many a manufacturer would like a share of the functional foodstuffs market, which is generating a lot of money. For example, world-wide sales of products containing xylitol are worth 500-1,000 million markkas (87-170 Euro million) each year. Here, however, a certain problem arises, because it is not possible to give the name functional foodstuff to any old healthy food. So far, Japan is the only country with legislation regulating the matter.

"Here in Europe efforts are under way to produce a standard that would define what a functional foodstuff is. Unless we do, the situation will get out of control and anyone who wants to will be able to sell anything under this name. The consumer will lack adequate protection," says Heikki Kallio, Professor of Food Chemistry.

"We are not talking about a medicine here, but rather a foodstuff, which has been shown in international clinical trials to maintain people's wellbeing by reducing certain risks of falling ill. In other words, it involves improving nutrition on the level of the individual. The development work is time-consuming and demanding, which means that these products cannot be brought onto the market in very rapid succession. And there is no point in developing them for the Finnish market only, because the resources put into research could never be recouped that way. The aim must always be to break into export markets," explains Professor Kallio.

Throughout the over 30 years since it began, food chemistry research at the university has been done in exceptionally close collaboration with industry. Professor Kallio, who himself has a background in food processing, recalls a time when the right to engage in this collaboration had to be downright fought for. "It was not regarded as quite kosher for industry and the university to work together. But our profile has always been strongly scientific." International contacts: student exchanges and cooperation with other universities have been very lively from the beginning.

Miraculous sea buckthorn

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One of the university's fortes has to do with the quality of foodstuffs as people can sense it. "In a way, what we are doing is deceiving people by giving healthy foods a good taste." Finnish vegetables and berries are among the items being studied.

The university is one of Europe's leading centres of research into sea buckthorn Hippophaë rhamnoises, a berry-bearing shrub that fills Professor Kallio with enthusiasm. "The earliest references to sea buckthorn in the Chinese literature date back 800 years. It is claimed to have so many health-promoting and even curative effects that incredulity sometimes sets in. But we have studied some of the claims and our results to date are strong confirmation of the Chinese views."

Sea buckthorn is said to have beneficial effects on, among other ailments, mucous membranes in the stomach and oesophagus, skin injuries and heart and circulatory diseases. Does that entitle it to be called a functional foodstuff? "Hopefully some time, but it will take more proof than we can provide now," says Professor Kallio.

You are what you eat

Illness is a costly affair for society, one that just eating healthy food could do a lot to redress. In Professor Kallio's view, however, it will take more than functional foodstuffs to solve the problem. His advice is simple: eat less and get more exercise. Eat more berries and vegetables, less salt and sugar. Eat a little more rye bread, potatoes and fish. You can also cut down on fat, but don't cut it out entirely; it is an important part of your diet. Provided it is taken in moderation, butter is likewise better than its reputation.

"Only when these things are in order do functional foodstuffs have a role. It must also be remembered that they interest people who can afford them. And when there are many of them, we are living in a society with lifestyle problems."