Finnish Food Research Forges Ahead

There's more to the Finnish functional foods scene than Raisio's world-famous Benecol range. Sasha Koo-Oshima reports from Scandinavia's fortified foods capital.

The development of functional foods has long been a key research and development goal for Finnish food enterprises, particularly specific innovations using domestic plant raw materials. Finland's food industry ranks fourth in the national gross value of production that functions with a high level of technological know-how. The country produces almost 90 per cent of its own food, and the industry is heavily reliant on high-quality, domestically produced ingredients.

According to statistics from food and biotechnology company Omecol, the Finnish market for functional foods is expanding by approximately 10 per cent per year, compared with up to two per cent for the conventional foods industry. It has been estimated that the market for functional foods will increase to 30 per cent of the overall food market by year 2005.

Health-promoting products such as oils with essential fatty acids, cholesterol-reducing plant stanols, probiotics, xylitol and oat ingredients have been developed by the Finnish food and cosmetics/pharmaceuticals industries. Traditional Finnish plants such as the cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus), found in the northern part of Scandinavia, have been used in cosmetics as well as in foods such as jams and the bright yellow Finnish Lakka liqueur. One company has adopted the cloudberry plant as the functional cornerstone in its line of modern cosmetics, while also promoting sustainable development. Cloudberry seed oil is rich in valuable nutrients, such as essential fatty acids, linoleic acids and alpha-linolenic acids, as well as antioxidant carotenoids and phytosterols.

Aromtech is the leading supplier of a range of arctic berry seed oils and is heavily involved in the application of supercritical fluid extraction (SFE), a separation technology for sensitive raw materials, such as those with aromas and lipid-soluble antioxidants. Developed with a local university (Turku), SFE is a new means of producing ultra-pure natural oils and bioactives. The company specialises in the extraction of sea buckthorn oil, an ointment for protecting and regenerating mucous membranes that has been in use in China for centuries. Research has shown that sea buckthorn seed oil, high in essential fatty acids, can alleviate eczema as well as other skin disorders.

The Birth Of Benecol
High cholesterol is a common problem in Finland—about two-thirds of Finns aged 35 to 64 have what are considered to be unhealthy cholesterol levels. Finland's biggest and most successful functional foods company, Raisio, produces the best-known cholesterol-reducing food item—Benecol, the plant-stanol ester-containing margarine. More than 30 published scientific studies have illustrated stanol ester's ability to reduce total serum cholesterol levels by 10 per cent and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol by around 15 per cent. Buoyed by such science, the Benecol brand has been attached to milks, yoghurts, cream cheeses and snack bars.

Diminicol, another cholesterol-lowering product, is manufactured by Teriaka, an R&D spin-off of Paulig Group, which has been in the foods business in Finland for more than 125 years. Teriaka's research focuses on investigating cholesterol-lowering agents and antioxidant components from plants, herbs and spices. Diminicol is a plant sterol/stanol-containing ingredient that can be used in different types of foods to replace fat and water. Similar to stanol esters, Diminicol blocks cholesterol absorption through the small intestine and thus is most effective when taken with food.

In the field of industrial processing, Omecol has received many awards for its methods of combining omega fatty acids and hydrophilic raw materials. The Omecol method aims to increase the level of natural, cholesterol-lowering omega fatty acids in food products and can be used in manufacturing end products as well as food-product ingredients and semi-finished food products.

Oat ingredients, high in soluble fibre containing the linear polysaccharide beta-glucan, have also demonstrated numerous favourable physiological effects, such as the reduction of LDL cholesterol. Unlike the mechanisms of Benecol and Diminicol, oat-soluble fibre exerts its effect principally from the decreased absorption of bile acids, causing a removal of steroids from the body.

Besides lowering serum LDL levels, beta-glucan has been shown to increase intestinal viscosity and help stabilise levels of blood glucose and insulin. Because the mammalian enzymes are unable to hydrolyse beta-glucan, it remains nearly intact in the small intestine, elevating the viscosity that assists the extrication of cholesterol and bile acids, as well as retarding after-meal elevation of insulin (thus reducing cholesterol synthesis), and in weakening the action of lipase.

NATUREAL oat bran by Avena contains 15 per cent highly bioavailable beta-glucan and is produced through special dry and wet milling processes without the use of solvents. Its high water-holding capacity allows improved freeze-thaw in frozen foods and increased shelf life of baked goods. It produces a good texture when extruded, thereby making it easy to formulate into healthy and functional foods such as breakfast cereals, snacks and nutritional energy bars. Because soluble dietary fibres are rapidly fermented in the large intestine, a large number of studies have been performed on colonic epithelium and bacterial colonies to test effects on host health of prebiotics and probiotics.

Short-chain fatty acids formed in fermentations of soluble dietary fibre are commonly known for their antimicrobial effects, with the magnitude of the effect being pH- and species-dependent. One of the bacterial strains that beneficially affect the host by stimulating the growth and/or activity of bacteria in the colon, Lactobacillus rhamnosus (LGG), was developed by Valio. LGG is the most thoroughly researched of bacterial strains, and Valio has launched its LGG products under the brand name Gefilus in Finland. It has also sold LGG licences to dairies in more than 25 countries.

Other Valio functional products include Evolus, a fermented milk with active biopeptides shown in clinical studies to lower blood pressure, and Hyla products designed for lactose-intolerant consumers suffering from bloating and discomfort associated with ordinary dairy products.

Collaboration Is Key
A joint study between Valio and Turku University and the Japanese firm Takanashi has indicated that the probiotic LGG might be helpful in alleviating allergies. A diet containing LGG-fermented milk has been shown to lower the activity of hydrolytic enzymes (beta-glucuronidase, glycoholic acid hydrolase, nitroreductase and tryptic activity) in colon content and urinary secretion of toxic p-cresol.

In another preliminary study conducted jointly by Valio and two Finnish hospitals, researchers have come up with promising findings on the effects of LGG on rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Valio's nutritionist and study investigator, Katja Hatakka, says, "It is known that there is a relationship between arthritis and the state of the gastrointestinal tract. Patients with RA have been found to have abnormal intestinal microflora, gut inflammation and also increased intestinal permeability. Normally the indigenous microflora is an important component in the intestine's defence barrier, because it can reduce the colonisation of pathogenic bacteria and also absorption of harmful antigens from the gut. There is also some evidence that Lactobacillus GG [i.e. LGG] can enhance the mucosal barrier mechanism and possibly reduce the antigen load and thereby the activity of RA."

Such close collaboration between industry and research institutes means that Finland has become one of the most advanced nations in food research, chemistry and technology. This serious approach to product development will undoubtedly pay off in terms of the huge projected growth for functional foods in Finland.

Sasha Koo-Oshima is a scientific advisor consulting with Environ Corp in Italy on product stewardship and R&D. From 1990_95, she held the position of scientific program manager at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris. She can be reached at [email protected] or +39 339 433 8579.

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