Cholesterol-lowering beer, a chewing gum to remedy gingivitis and a cure for a type of vertigo — these are just some of the products to come from a functional foods business cluster in Sweden. Peter Wennström reports
Fast-tracking functional foods from the laboratory to the market is a speciality of the food business cluster located in the Sk?ne region of Sweden. Much of the cluster?s success can be attributed to its location.
Sk?ne is home to one third of Sweden?s agricultural production and as much as 45 per cent of the turnover of the Swedish food industry. It also includes packaging and equipment suppliers. The region contains Scandinavia?s largest unit for academic research, Lund University, and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Added together, around half of Sweden?s food R&D resources and 40 per cent of the Swedish biotech and crop science industry is based in Sk?ne. As part of the Oresund region, Sk?ne is ranked as one of Europe?s leading biotech areas, also known as Medicon Valley.
After a national evaluation, the Swedish government has officially recognised Sk?ne as a food and health industry cluster and has invested $14.5 million in a programme to support its continued development. This amount has been matched by stakeholders in the cluster, making a total investment of nearly $30 million.?One of the immediate results of this is that the Functional Foods Science Center at Lund University is starting a PhD programme in functional foods.
The investment programme is called Innovations at Interfaces and its purpose, according to programme co-ordinator Kjell Olsson, is to fast-track innovations from research to market. ?The objective is very clear. We want to see new products, new processes, new concepts and new companies. We are prioritising projects within four areas: functional foods, food service, international marketing, and innovations and innovation systems.?
Professor Magnus Lagnevik, a research leader at Lund International Food Studies at Lund University, is also working with Olsson on the programme. He further explains the strategy behind Innovations at Interfaces: ?Innovations happen because there are innovators. If we can create a structure that will support these people, we will encourage the innovators and also help others learn from them. They will become role models, and they will keep on innovating.?
An inventory of the products professor Lagnevik and his colleagues helped develop in 2002 comprises 24 genuine food innovations. These ranged from functional food products like Oatly — an oat drink and oat milk products developed by Ceba Foods — to packaging innovations like Life Top Straw, which is a delivery system for probiotics for ambient products developed by biotech company BioGaia and TetraPak.
Chew on this
Further innovative products have since been added to the cluster?s successes, including a probiotic chewing gum that battles gingivitis and loss of teeth. ?Oral health is a new commercial area for probiotics, but when you consider that the mouth is the entry to the digestive system, the logic is clear,? explains Anders Zachrisson, head of product development for BioGaia. ?One clinical study shows that patients who use the chewing gum containing our Lactobacillus reuteri prodentis have significantly reduced bleeding of the gums after two weeks of use.?
He adds that the company is currently selling the probiotic chewing gum through dentists in the region. ?Oral health is definitely an area of great interest to BioGaia, and the potential seems to be enormous given the fact that a third of the Swedish population suffers from bleeding gums, which can advance into the more serious periodontitis and loss of teeth,? he says. ?We seem to have a very effective product, and, according to the experts, there are no really good alternative treatments.?
It?s easy to understand why BioGaia and the patients in the study find it easy to agree with the tagline Zachrisson has invented for the product: ?Millions of reasons to smile.?
Drink to your health
Another interesting product to be developed by Sk?ne?s functional foods cluster is a cholesterol-reducing beer. This is currently being clinically tested by Lund University?s Department of Biomedical Nutrition in a double-blind cross-over study involving one four-week period of drinking ordinary low-alcohol beer and one period with the real thing. All the 50 individuals participating in the study have moderately raised cholesterol levels. Results of the study will be presented in March.
?If the clinical study shows a significant cholesterol-lowering effect, our brewing method has enormous potential. My guess is that the brewing business will be interested,? says Arne Berge, managing director of Aventure, a company that has sprung from the same research as the Oatly project. Aventure?s vision is to help the global brewing industry create a new standard: adding health values to beer. ?Our formula is simple, yet effective,? he says. ?We have introduced specific health properties in one of the world?s most widespread beverages. The target group is people who drink beer already. We know that people rarely make sustainable changes in eating or drinking habits. Now, they don?t have to.?
Aventure is looking for opportunities to scale up and introduce its functional beer to the global markets. Discussions with potential partners have begun already, says Berge.
Among other success stories in the cluster is L plantarum 299v. This is a probiotic bacterium, developed by Probi in partnership with Sk?ne Dairy to produce ProViva — one of the bestselling functional beverages in Scandinavia. The bacteria were also recently licensed to Danone for worldwide application. In its search for alternative application areas, Probi is now taking its probiotic strain into clinical nutrition. Research has found the company?s patented bacteria reduce the risk of infections occurring during intensive care treatment.
Back at Lund University, a heart surgeon at the university hospital has developed a range of low-glycaemic index foods. Working with the Swedish-Canadian biotech company Indevex, heart surgeon Professor Stig Steen has developed a new health nutrition concept called Scientific, Individual, Complete, Calorie-restricted, Optimal, Natural (SICCON) nutrition.
Steen explains further: ?I believe ordinary food can have a great effect on people?s health. My original idea with SICCON was to develop a nutrition complement that fulfilled two important needs: It should contain a complete mix of nutrition, and it should be based entirely on natural food ingredients.?
The first product based on the SICCON concept is called InZone, which is already sold through health food stores in Sweden, as well as in the US and Canada. It contains a mix of proteins, essential fatty acids and carbohydrates with a low GI. InZone keeps blood sugar levels within very narrow limits, while at the same time keeping hunger away.
For the millions of sufferers of morbus m?ni?re (or Meniere?s disease) — a type of vertigo that is characterised by dizziness and a sensation of spinning — help may finally have arrived in the form of a cereal bar containing Specially Processed Cereal flakes from Cerealia. According to Lars Sjöstrand, managing director of As-Faktor, the research company connected to Cerealia, a cereal bar based on oats will be launched in the spring.
?Research and clinical studies prove that these flakes have an effect on morbus m?ni?re, which affects millions of people worldwide,? he says. ?By the way, industry experts told us that it was impossible to produce a cereal bar with less than 26 per cent sugar. We proved them wrong. Our bar contains less than 10 per cent sugar and less than one per cent fat. Now we?re looking for someone who is interested in doing a low-fat and low-sugar cereal bar for the food market.?
Casting an eye over the innovations to come from the Sk?ne cluster, it?s hard not to agree with the US newsletter Science Next Wave, which wrote recently: ?The functional foods business is a new Scandinavian area of co-operation that blends biotechnology with the traditional food industry. It has grown up from a great collaborative spirit involving government, industry and academia.?
Peter Wennström of Wennström Integrated is a brand management consultant working in the food and functional foods sectors in Europe. He is also an associate of HealthFocus International.
Wennström will be speaking further on this subject at the March 17 Nutracon seminar ?Focus on Functional Food Innovation in Sweden.?