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Improving Health with Functional Foods

Understanding the science of how the human gut functions and the role that diet plays in human health will be explored at a major International Functional Foods conference in Cork, this week. Foods have an enormous role to play in keeping people healthy and many foods have properties that can enhance the health of those that consume them. A ‘functional food’ is one that serves a purpose beyond basic nutrition, promoting health or reducing the risk of certain diseases. The global market for functional foods is expected to increase to €14.7 billion by 2013.

The USA/Ireland Functional Foods conference 2010 brings together some of the leading scientists and food researchers working in Ireland and abroad to discuss the latest developments in this rapidly expanding area. This conference, organised by Teagasc, University College Cork and the United States Department of Agriculture, will focus on the science of gut function and the response to diet. It will address gut hormones and incretin (which causes an increase in insulin release) release, gut microbiota (microbial make-up) for optimal gut function, diet and immune function and biomarkers for enhanced health through diet.

Professor Paul Ross, head of Food Research at Teagasc said: “Health conditions that are diet-related and connected to gut responses include such conditions as obesity and the metabolic syndrome, which are increasingly becoming a problem in Ireland. Food companies are focussing more on the sciences, as they develop functional foods and bioactives with validated health claims. We are currently working on a collaborative project with UCC looking at the impact of gut bacteria including probiotics on human health. There is a major opportunity in this scientific space to translate scientific discovery into new product opportunities for the food industry.”

In Ireland, there are already close working relationships between functional food researchers in different organisations. Collaborative research work is being done within the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre, (APC) which is one of nine Science Foundation Ireland funded ‘Centres of Science, Engineering and Technology’ (CSETs) in Ireland. The research undertaken at the APC focuses primarily on the area of gastrointestinal health. In late 2008 the centre was approved 2nd-term funding of more than €17 million from the Government with industry contribution, to support its research programme for a further five years. In the period since its establishment the centre has flourished into a 100-strong multidisciplinary research team with a variety of funding sources, with staff based at both UCC and Teagasc’s Moorepark Food Research Centre.

Details of the ELDERMET project are being presented by Professor Paul O’Toole, University College Cork. This joint research project, involving scientists from Teagasc, UCC, and Cork University Hospital, is assessing the composition of the gut microbiota of elderly volunteers over 65 years of age in the Irish population, using state-of-the-art molecular technology. The samples collected are being screened for probiotic properties, which could help to produce functional foods for our ageing population.

At the conference Jens Bleiel, chief executive of Food for Health Ireland (FHI) will talk on functional foods from the perspective of the consumer and how to make it a success. Food for Health Ireland is a unique partnership between four of Ireland’s major dairy processing companies and four public research organisations. It aims to determine how milk ingredients can be extracted and used to deliver health benefits for consumers. Supported by Enterprise Ireland, FHI combines the expertise of researchers at University College Cork, University College Dublin, Teagasc, and University of Limerick to provide a pipeline for the development of new functional food ingredients and products.

Prof. Rob O'Doherty, University College Cork will talk on 'Over-nutrition to energy imbalance/ lipid metabolism and obesity'. He will focus on the biochemical and molecular mechanisms that link obesity, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia and inflammation in the metabolic syndrome. Metabolic Syndrome comprises a clustering of risk factors (obesity, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia/steatosis, inflammation and hypertension) that dramatically increase the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and coronary vascular disease.

For the full scientific programme see: www.corkff2010.com