The food pyramid gets healthy

In every section of the USDA food pyramid, healthy foods and functional-ingredient options are now on the table to improve the health of the consumer — and transform the food industry from one offering the niche of 'functional foods' and 'better-for-you' ingredients into a sustainable, healthy, eco-nutrition concern. Todd Runestad reports on the future of food.

Burgers. Fries. Coke. Maybe a milkshake.

This classic American meal has been a staple since cows grazed in pastures next to agricultural fields and fast-food joints sprung up alongside freeways. Somewhere along the way, the health of consumers started heading drastically south. Between cholesterol readings, supersized portions, high sodium content and too many carbohydrates, Americans got fat, developed diabetes, suffered heart attacks and wondered what they could do about it.

Fortunately, what food science giveth, it can also take away. Today we are at the dawn of a new era of healthy foods.

That meal listed above? Today you can buy a soy-based faux burger (low in cholesterol and saturated fat) on a whole-grain bun, fries cooked in oil containing no trans fats, less saturated fat and more monounsaturatedfat — the so-called good fat — than the partially hydrogenated vegetable oils used by most eateries, and a high-protein shake sprinkled with healthful probiotics and fibre-rich prebiotics.

Nutrition Business Journal pegged the 2006 total sales of healthy foods — defined as functional foods, natural and organic foods, and 'better-for-you' foods — at $120 billion, or 21 per cent of total food sales. Notably, sales are double those from a decade earlier.

The official USDA food guide pyramid contains all areas of foods available on the market. In every section of the food pyramid — grains, fruits and vegetables, dairy, meats, oils and sweets — healthy food ingredient options are now growing rapidly. This wholesale transformation of the food industry is seen as finally taking the health of consumers into account in an equation that has traditionally been about farmers, seed sellers, chemical purveyors and agribusiness lobbyists.

Food products are being fortified and redesigned with health as a keystone
The healthy ingredients business took off after the explosion of dietary supplements in the 1990s and, with GRAS-ready ingredients at hand, suppliers are now offering food manufacturers a range of healthy options. From inherently healthier food choices — like whole grains, fibre and organics — to supplement crossovers — like omega-3s, probiotics, protein peptides and green tea — food products are being fortified, reformulated and redesigned with health as a keystone.

The base of the traditional food pyramid is composed of bread, cereal, rice and pasta. The drivers of the healthy foods revolution in this category are whole grains and fibre. In fact, leading cereal manufacturer General Mills transitioned to exclusively whole grains in 2005.

"We know people are looking for simple ways to integrate whole grains into their diets," said General Mills public relations manager Shelly Dvorak. "If cereal can provide it, it's easy and cost-effective."

A whole grain contains the entire grain kernel — the bran, germ and endosperm. The refining process removes the bran and germ in order to provide longer shelf life and a more pleasing texture — at the expense of nearly all the fibre, iron, vitamins and minerals. Whole grains are often more expensive than refined grains because their higher oil content is susceptible to rancidification, complicating processing, storage and transport.

The expense seems to be one consumers are willing to bear. That goes double for organic grains, which all manufacturers seem to be asking for.

"Things are healthier all around," said Tara Froemming, marketer for grains supplier SK Foods International in North Dakota. "Organic, of course, and gluten-free are big. After the low-carb scare, the focus on whole grains is great. Whole grains, omega-3s and trans-free oils. Our biggest is sunflower oil, and all of our oils come in organic."

Consumers' palates are both shrinking and expanding. An increasing number of people have wheat sensitivities and need gluten-free foods. SK Foods' newest ingredient is Soy ProFiber, made from organic soybean hulls with a bit of soybeans for added protein, and is being sold for manufacturers of gluten-free foods. On the other hand, exotic grains like amaranth and quinoa have both a greater nutritional profile as well as a taste profile more potent than hum-drum wheat.

Of all the wheat-grain competitors, one of the healthier offerings is flax. It benefits from being a good source of omega-3 fatty acids — a nutritional term that carries much weight with nutrition-savvy consumers. Flax also has fewer carbohydrates than regular flour.

Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables make up the next layer of the food pyramid, and it is here that the global organic movement has had its most clear impact in that even mainstream grocery stores now routinely stock extensive lines of organic produce.

Beyond organics, innovative suppliers have tapped into the inherent health halo surrounding fruits and veggies. Building on the antioxidant resonance, global suppliers have begun to look at the antioxidant potential of fruits from around the world. Blueberries and cranberries were first to gain recognition, but then exotic fruits packed with antioxidant-rich nutrients came on the scene. Açai, pomegranate, goji berries, mangosteen — none of these fruits were anywhere close to being household words at the turn of the century, but today are a billion-dollar concern. And rare is the superfruit that is available as the whole fruit — they are taken in shot-size servings, or as smoothie additives, or high-antioxidant supplements.

The new trend from suppliers is to bundle fruits and vegetable extracts into blends that offer beneficial phytonutrients and mesh seamlessly into finished products — offering everything from cardiovascular benefits to natural flavours and preservatives. InterHealth USA offers OptiBerry, a proprietary blend of six standardised berry extracts rich in biologically active anthocyanins. VDF Futureceuticals offers a VitaBerry line of fruit blends. Decas Botanical Synergies leverages other suppliers' branded ingredients in its NutriCran line — one product uses Decas' cranberry powder with Polyphenolic's MegaNatural Gold grape-seed extract and Durham Research's BluePhenolic wild-blueberry powder.

Another recent innovation in the fruit and vegetable world is the use of vegetable extracts such as lycopene from tomatoes and isoflavones from soy.

Twenty years ago the life of a soybean after harvest was to have its skin removed (which is, of course, high in fibre), then crushed for its oil (not so healthy, but quite functional), the remainder extracted of its protein and the soy molasses, which contains sugars as well as a nutritional nugget called isoflavones. It's the same story with much of the nutritional ingredient sector — once a waste-stream product, now a nutritional heavyweight.

"Isoflavones are becoming bigger in the food industry," said Laurent Leduc, vice president of marketing and new product development for Frutarom, which markets SoyLife, a pharma-grade complex of soy actives useful for both supplements and foods such as cereals, waffles and breads. "Even soy milk companies are putting on the label how much isoflavones per serving the product will provide."

Time was, dairy products meant mostly milk and cheeses. Yoghurts solidified dairy products in the consumer mind as being inherently healthy. The healthier dairy segment today is going two ways at once: One is as a prime delivery system for bioactive ingredients such as probiotics, prebiotics, minerals and omega-3s. Because dairy is seen as inherently healthy, fortifying dairy products with other functional ingredients is all to the good. Also, since dairy products are refrigerated, it maintains the shelf life of these sometimes fickle functionals.

The second way dairy is moving is to magnify and extract the healthful protein fractions of dairy — such as whey protein isolates and concentrates — sometimes in order to amplify the content and healthfulness of the dairy product, other times to use that component on its own or with other nondairy products.

"Many years ago whey was considered a by-product of cheese-making. We think cheese is a by-product of our whey products, said Kelly Czerwonka, marketing manager of Glanbia Nutritionals, which supplies a milk-sourced calcium, TruCal, a whey-protein isolate, Provon, and a weight-loss GRAS-certified dairy ingredient, ProLibra. "Glanbia can take something from an already healthy source and refortify a dairy-based food with a highly extracted dairy-based ingredient. It comes back around and goes back in."

The dairy-milk alternatives market in North America is now estimated to be a $1 billion concern
Finally, milk analogues are enjoying their heyday as consumers look for alternatives to cows' milk, perhaps because of lactose-intolerance issues or ethical issues surrounding animal products. Soy milk was the first of the vegetable-sourced milk products to hit store shelves. When WhiteWave was able to sell its soy milk in the milk-styled gabled carton — and sell it using the name 'Silk' (a move vehemenently opposed by milk interests) — sales went through the roof. Today, nearly every store that sells traditional cow's milk now offers Silk-brand soymilk. Soymilk paved the way for additional low-fat, low-cholesterol milk alternatives sourced from almonds, rice and hemp. The dairy-milk alternatives market in North America is now estimated to be a $1 billion concern.

How do you make a healthier meat? Organic is one way. Healthier meats such as bison, which has less cholesterol and fat than beef (or even chicken) are another. And the versatile soybean is another — soy meat analogues have come a long way since the humble tofu chunk, and are now at the point in their maturity that consumers are hard-pressed to tell it apart from chicken.

The primary healthfulness of meats is derived from its protein content. As mentioned in the dairy section above, low-fat, low-cholesterol protein sources are being derived from hemp, pea, rice, whey and soy. The human body is able to digest 92 percent of the protein found in meat and 91 percent of that found in soybeans, making it an ideal nutritional alternative to meat. What's more, soy is now being developed with the texture, grit and mouthfeel of any meat from pork to beef.

The other excellent protein alternative is fish. Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils — as well as those sourced from algae — are the latest nutritional ingredient to run the mainstream gauntlet. Technological developments enable fish oil to be seamlessly integrated, with neutral taste and odour profiles, into an astonishingly diverse array of foods and beverages. The consumer message is health. Food science is making it convenient.

Oils and sweets
There's a reason this segment is considered as the smallest sliver of the food pyramid — sugars and oils, while sumptuous to the palate, can quickly lead to cavities and cardiovascular assaults. Fortunately, healthier ingredients are leading to healthier overall end products. From high-intensity sweeteners such as sucralose, acesulfame-K, neotame and alitame to reduced-calorie sugar alcohols such as maltitol, tagatose, xylitol and erythritol, to natural alternatives such as stevia and Lo Han Gua, the sugar-alternatives market is growing at more than twice the rate of the food-ingredients sector as a whole.

"One of the big results behind the post-low carb explosion is people in general are a whole lot more familiar with sugars in their diet," said Donna Brooks, regional manager for Danisco, a consummate functional-ingredients company with offerings that target the range of potential health conditions. "Years ago people were counting fat, now it's common in the mainstream for people to look at the amount of sugar in something and know there is sugar in juice, and know there is sugar in all different places, places like cereal where you might not expect to have a higher sugar content."

Danisco's Litesse brand polydextrose is marketed as a low-glycaemic food for blood-sugar issues. "There are a couple of different camps of people who eat those types of products," said Brooks, "consumers who are looking for more healthful alternatives to chocolate. And then obviously there's the contingent of diabetics or people on diets or people looking to reduce sugars."

Danisco and others market xylitol, the quintessential functional ingredient because it is both a sweetener and, curiously, prevents dental cavities, making it a sought-after active ingredient in natural toothpaste and chewing-gum products.

And on the natural front, although US regulations do not allow stevia to be used as a sweetener, Cargill and the Coca-Cola Company announced in June a joint project to develop a natural calorie-free sweetener from stevia.

As for oils, corn, coconut, cottonsed oil or even the traditional soy-based vegetable oil are being retooled to have neutral effect on cholesterol levels. New oils effective for frying and also rich in heart-healthy omega-3 oils, such as camelina oil, are also available.

The future of healthy
The state of healthy food offerings is moving ahead nicely. Within the last year, many food manufacturers have reduced portion sizes in an effort to improve public health. And some companies that have not exactly signed on to the healthy-foods manifesto will reformulate foods and proclaim, 'One-third less' fat, sugar or sodium — which is true, but the product still suffers from high contents of these unhealthful ingredients. Other companies are seen reducing fat content but increasing sodium to make up for the taste difference. Still others tout a single healthful ingredient in an otherwise junk-food product. And there are still plenty of downright unhealthy foods on store shelves.

It is difficult, however, to say that a sea change is not underway. From whole grains to antioxidant-rich açai and lycopene extracts, whey protein powders and soy-based meat analogues, functional sweeteners and no-trans fat oils, every segment of the food pyramid today at least offers healthier alternatives.

And that, as one food doyenne has been known to say, is a good thing.

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