Supply issues, quality, obesity and globalization were some of the major themes at last month's Healthy Foods Conference in Baltimore, Maryland.
With 70 per cent of food ingredients imported and most coming from China, China was on everyone's lips. Food safety has rapidly risen to the top of the political agenda, and food-safety legislation is predicted to be the biggest industry issue in 2008. Congress is expected to mandate user fees to inspect all food products entering the US, according to Loren Israelsen, executive director of United Natural Products Alliance (also one of DSHEA's authors and an advisor on government activity regarding food safety).
He warned of the problems inherent in a global economy and food supply. The use of carbon monoxide, for instance, to preserve meat and seafood for long-distance shipping, is proving to be a health risk, and he advised everyone to immediately stop using it. "For the supplements and organic foods industry, I believe this will in time rise to the level of debate and emotion that we see with irradiation and GMOs."
Other delegates pointed to the increasing numbers of lawsuits resulting from California's Proposition 65, which requires labelling of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. Such requirements are forcing changes in food-delivery and consumption patterns. Many participants agreed that the idea of locally grown foods is becoming huge, spurred in part by food scares originating in China. In recent surveys 82 per cent to 87 per cent of respondents said they don't want products from China. The result is that food likely will become more expensive.
Another issue of concern is counterfeit products, increasing consumer distrust of brands. Israelsen cited a brewing scandal with olive oil, the single most fraudulently traded product of the past 20 years.
Dr Steen Stender, chief physician and lab director for the Department of Clinical Biochemistry at the University of Copenhagen, presented his careful statistical analyses of the dramatic health results following Denmark's decree that trans fats must be limited to no more than two per cent in any food product. Rates of ischemic heart disease have since fallen steeply and rapidly. In addition, Dr Stender has gathered trans-fat information on fast and packaged foods from around the world, showing a strong relation between the amounts of trans fats in the food supply and the incidence of heart disease.
Nutrient quality and quantity related to the distance a product has travelled has suddenly become a major focus, along with the issue of food miles. Susan Roberts, a consultant to the food and agriculture industries, and director of the Food and Society Policy Fellowship, said these were directly related to nutrient levels according to research in the Journal of Agricultural Food Research. Produce picked early for long-distance shipping doesn't develop sunlight-related nutrients, such as polyphenols and anthocyanins in blackberries.
Stephanie French, managing director of consultancy Nutrition Directions, said how a product is grown, harvested and stored all affect nutrient quality. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of industry buzz words such as PUFAS, ORAC, fat quality, GI and impurity rating.
Much of the discussion focused on nutritional and marketing issues affecting children. Roberts said the most common health problem in children is overweight, with obesity increasing twice as fast in children as in the general population. While only two per cent of children are meeting the goals of the food guide pyramid, an estimated one third of children born today will develop diabetes in their lifetime. She blamed marketers, arguing that education must overcome marketing.
French pointed to many likely developments that will affect the industry. Among her predictions is a vastly greater use by consumers of technology to manage their own health, which could — and in some cases, already does — include home bar-code scanners that can monitor the intake of various substances in food, and enable consumers to manage their nutrition; machines that measure carotenoids, the biomarkers of antioxidant levels in the body; and the rising abilities of nutrigenomics to tailor diets to individuals.
Roberts highlighted some of the many problems inherent in the present food-supply chain, such as too few corporations controlling the food supply. Because there is limited population, she said, and shareholders demand growing profits, pressure is always there to increase consumption, resulting in a relentless marketing of fast and highly processed foods.
Title sponsor for this year's conference was NutraCea. Additional sponsors included Bioenergy Ribose, BioNeutra, ConAgra Food Ingredients, Cargill's CoroWise, Draco Natural Products, Ocean Nutrition, SuperCitrimax, and Wild Flavors. The 2008 conference will be held 15 October in Boston, Massachusetts.