European summit confronts health crises

More than a hundred executives, brand managers, scientists and academics from the food and beverage industry met at the second Healthy Foods European Summit in London in November to debate health issues pre-occupying the industry and governments around the world as they confront an epidemic of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

With many major food companies represented including Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Kellogg, Kraft, Nestlé, Mars and Unilever, the debate focused on issues facing the entire supply chain.

Themes included the role of trans fats on human health and behaviour, new superfruits research, the glycaemic load, consumer research, and the latest regulatory developments.

Inevitably, obesity, diabetes and kids' nutrition featured prominently. Dr Michael Nelson, head of research at the UK School Food Trust explained that children's first choices in school-meal selections were all high-fat foods, including French fries, followed by soft drinks, cakes and muffins. Only seven per cent chose vegetables and salads while a mere two per cent chose fruit.

He claimed that many children are calcium and iron deficient with low iron levels leading to anaemia and lower IQ, and said that it's important to manipulate food in schools. "You can't give kids free choice because education doesn't help them make the right choices. We need a revolution here, not just a tweak."

Trans fats under attack
Professor Steen Stender, chief physician at the Department of Clinical Biochemistry, Copenhagen County Hospital in Denmark, said millions of people in Europe and around the world have an average intake of more than 5g of industrially produced trans fats. He highlighted a study showing startling differences between countries in the level of trans fats found in large portions of French fries and chicken meals at KFC and McDonald's restaurants.

Oxford University scientist Bernard Gesch said there has been plenty of publicity about the effects of trans fats on heart disease but not enough coverage on the impact on the developing foetus — or studies that have shown a deleterious effect on the brain.

"We have reviewed the evidence on the effects of trans fats on the brain — both in foetal and childhood development, in addition to adults, and it is even more disturbing than the effects on heart disease," he said.

Gesch, who is director of research charity Natural Justice, went on to discuss his work involving prisoners and nutrition. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study by Gesch and colleagues published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that young adult prisoners who took vitamins and minerals and essential fatty acids supplements had a reduced incidence of antisocial behaviour including violent behaviour.

Functional foods' future?
Superfruits are one of the hottest new product trends globally. According to Karl Crawford, business leader, Food & Health at Hort Research, a superfruit is a functional fruit that provides a benefit beyond basic nutrition. He used five criteria to define the term: sensory qualities, health benefits, convenience, producer's control of supply and promotion.

"Mangosteen, pomegranate and a?ai are all gaining in popularity and there are opportunities for food manufacturers in novel fruit beverages as well as bars, yoghurt and ice cream applications combined with other ingredients such as dairy, soy and probiotics," he said. "It's important to change the marketing approach and promote fruit more like a food product."

Crawford claimed the next generation of health benefits will include mental state and performance, sleep, physical performance and fitness, and gut health and immunity, all areas currently being researched for fruit applications.

Futurist Stephanie French intrigued the audience with her vision of technology's impact on the relationship between the consumer and the food industry. Predicting personalized monitoring of biomakers, she said, "Once people consume your food and see what it does to their bodies, they can decide if they want to keep consuming it or not."

HFES sponsors included CoroWise, MEG-3, Acceptus, Givaudan and Monsanto.

—Peter Sofroniou

What they said:
In 2005-2006, reformulations changes will eliminate 15,000 tonnes of trans fats, 10,000 tonnes of saturated fats, 2,000 tonnes of sodium and 10,000 tonnes of sugars from our portfolio.

— Anne Heughan, European External Affairs Director, Unilever

We assume that antisocial behaviour is purely a matter of free will — but how can you exercise free will without involving your brain? And how can the brain work properly without an adequate nutrient supply?

— Bernard Gesch, Oxford University scientist

Fruit is no longer a raw ingredient — it is an active ingredient.

— Karl Crawford, business leader, Food & Health at Hort Research

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