Innovations in nutrition could make it even easier to eat a healthy diet, and sow rich rewards for the nation’s health, says Jane McKenzie
HEART health and obesity are two of the biggest concerns for Scotland’s ageing population. Sage advice to eat less and move more is easy to give but not, it seems, so easy to follow. It is widely hoped that the Commonwealth Games will inspire the nation’s couch potatoes to take responsibility for their physical well-being and become more active and health-aware. But Scotland’s burgeoning food and drink industry should sit up and take notice too if they want to cash in on heightened interest in diet and potential growth in the market for so-called functional foods.
Athletes are well aware of the impact of ingredients on their health and their diet is as important to their performance as their physical training schedule. Food manufacturers that embrace science to create products that can enhance performance or improve health and wellbeing could capitalise on the anticipated increase in demand from a public fired with enthusiasm to live healthier lives. By analysing products to establish health benefits, and enriching foods by adding ingredients known to boost wellbeing, food companies could see a positive financial return as they contribute to the nation’s health.
There is plenty of evidence linking what we eat to disease and disease prevention. Probiotics, prebiotics, stanols and sterols are all perceived as having benefits to health and are commonly added to products such as yoghurts and spreads to improve intestinal health or to lower cholesterol. Manufacturers boast about “calcium-fortified” orange juice and “calcium-rich” cheese, and folic acid is added to bread and breakfast cereals – with its benefits heavily marketed through packaging, clever advertising and well-funded PR campaigns.
But even the smallest food producers now have easy access to academic expertise through the Business Innovation Exchange – a partnership with Queen Margaret, St Andrews, and Edinburgh Napier universities. By collaborating with academics and taking advantage of the vast knowledge and research facilities that exist within our universities, not just within food science and product development, but also in marketing and business management, Scotland’s micro food producers could play a significant role in growing the country’s economy whilst having a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of the population.
QMU’s food and nutrition experts have been working with Scotland-based Gusto Artisan Foods to create unique highly nutritious salad dressings and oils infused with a vegetarian alternative to Omega-3 fatty acids normally found in oily fish and known to reduce the risk of heart disease. The key is marine algae oil, also known as marine plant oil, which delivers some of the nutritional benefits associated with oily fish without actually having to eat it. Essentially it is an alternative source of docosahexaenic acid (DHA) which is the element in omega-3 fatty acids that helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Although in Mexico all cooking oils are enriched with DHA from marine algae, our research shows that very few commercially available food items in Scotland contain the supplement, which does not taste or smell like oily fish and could easily be incorporated into many manufactured foods.
When protein is added to foods we feel full for longer and therefore we are likely to eat less. Protein also helps maintain muscle mass and we need protein in order to benefit from any exercise we do. What many people don’t realise is that exercising without enough protein can actually result in muscle loss. And zinc present in high protein foods is shown to have a positive effect on the immune system. If adding protein to everyday foods could result in a healthy balance sheet and a healthier population than we are surely on to something good by doing so.
So, if the spectacle of some of the world’s top athletes giving the performance of their lives at the Commonwealth Games this summer makes us ask for “a little bit of what they’re having, thank you” be assured that functional foods have a role to play. Yes, we need to exercise more and yes, there is no substitute for a balanced diet. But add to that diet a salad dressing rich in DHA from marine algae and mop it up with bread fortified with vitamins and minerals and you could make a significant impact on your health over time. Functional foods may not be new, but discoveries are being made all the time and there are enormous opportunities for Scotland’s food industry entrepreneurs who are prepared to work with academics to unlock the full potential of their products.
• Jane McKenzie is academic lead, food and drink, at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh