For 63 years, Diamond V Mills in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has researched and manufactured special ingredients for the livestock industry to improve feed conversion — the amount of food an animal needs to eat in order to gain 1kg of body weight. Among its products was a selenium yeast ingredient, an important trace mineral that proved successful in improving overall animal health.
Seeing firsthand the positive effects of this ingredient in animals, Diamond V executives realised they had a product with obvious crossover potential into the human foods industry.
"It is actually harder to get new ingredients approved for animals than for people because people can read a product label, whereas animals simply eat what is put in front of them," says Paul Faganel, president of Diamond V subsidiary Embria Health Sciences. "Also, when people eat meat, they don't necessarily know what foods the animal has consumed first, so there are many safeguards in that arena. In essence, the hardest work had already been done."
Under its subsidiary Embria, a selenium yeast ingredient for the natural products industry was launched in mid-2005, under the brand name of eXselen. Sold as a raw material, eXselen has already earned approval for sales in the European Union, where it is distributed by Livingstone Scott (Healthcare) & Co Ltd.
It is also currently being sold in Brazil, and maintains a promising position in the North American dietary supplements market. The ingredient has also been incorporated into several small bakery lines in the Eastern US, sold in the form of selenium-enriched bread.
The benefits of selenium
A trace mineral essential to all life forms, selenium cannot be manufactured by the body; instead, it must be ingested through foods or supplementation. Deficiency can have severe ramifications, says Margaret Rayman, PhD, reader and course director of the MSc program in nutritional medicine at the University of Surrey in the UK, and a leading expert in selenium research.
"Humans ingest selenium from plants, which get it from the soil they are grown in," she explains. "In the US, you usually have enough, but in many places in Europe, especially Eastern Europe, the soils are usually deficient. Rainfall in mountainous areas, for example, can leech selenium out of the soils. In the Keshan region of China, the deficiency is so severe it causes a disease now known as Keshan Disease, responsible for serious heart pathologies."
One of the most compelling areas of selenium research is its potential role in immunity, pre-eclampsia, male infertility and even cancer prevention.
"These numbers have implications for cancer," she says. "Some 70 per cent of prospective studies show that lower cancer rates are associated with higher selenium intake or status. Selenium also seems to have a strong protective effect against prostate cancer.
"One particularly compelling study showed that you could nullify the effect of the BRACA1 mutation, one gene associated with hereditary breast cancer, down to the gene breakage rates you find in women without that mutation — solely through selenium consumption."
Selenium yeast is unique among forms of selenium, Rayman explains, because it contains additional forms of selenium not found in inorganic selenium — selenium chelates or pure selenomethionine.
"EXselen selenium yeast is a highly bioavailable organic selenium that guarantees consistently high levels of selenomethionine — the preferred form for efficient absorption by the body," Faganel of Embria says.
"It is more bioavailable than other forms of selenium because it is more easily absorbed by the body and has the potential to be stored in body tissue for later usage."