Research could shift industry health messages

07/20/2012 09:48:00 AM
Carl Keen and Kerry Tucker

Carl Keen, University of California-DavisWe may well be on the cusp of several scientific breakthroughs that could allow the refinement of the public health message, “eat a variety of fruits and vegetables.”

New developments in science are poised to reshape the food-health nexus, according to one trend from the 2012 Food Foresight report.

Rapid advances in research may mean that health research changes the assumptions made about disease risks.

Many new areas of research — microbial imbalances in the gut, plant microRNAs, nanotechnology, personalized nutrition among them — will offer new insights into major disease processes and aid in the development of evidence-based regulations and health claims consumers can understand and use.

Dietary recommendations are likely to be more detailed and focused around the potential health-promoting and disease-preventing features of specific fruits and vegetables, and the nutritional consequences of the ways in which these foods might be processed and prepared.

Kerry Tucker, Nuffer, Smith, TuckerSimilar to our increasing understanding of the diverse nutritional actions of phytochemicals found in fruits and vegetables, there is a growing appreciation that the phytochemicals found in different tree nuts vary considerably with respect to their profile, amounts and biological actions.

Simply put, there is an increasing acceptance of the fact that not all plant foods are equal with respect to their nutritional value. It’s easy to envision science-based debates regarding the potential health value of different grains, meats and dairy products becoming increasingly common.

The Supreme Court’s decision this month to uphold the Affordable Care Act will likely exacerbate the pressure on health care costs and the movement toward preventative health care strategies (e.g., nutrition).

The problem is most health institutes are not currently geared up for prevention programs. The ability to bill for such services is limited and prevention pales as a revenue source compared to billings for medical procedures.

Nonetheless, employers and insurance companies are increasingly embracing wellness programs and creating financial incentives to foster healthier lifestyles, lower health care costs and reduce worker absenteeism.

A challenge in the near future will be how to communicate this information to the average consumer.

Importantly, in agriculture there are likely to be winners and losers if certain foods are identified as being “better for you.”

An additional challenge will be how to communicate the difference between foods that are perceived as being in general “bad for you” (e.g., foods with high trans fats or a low micronutrient density) versus foods that are simply not “high” in health-promoting nutrients in a way that doesn’t fuel skepticism toward scientists and research.

“After decades of what often appeared to consumers to be conflicting and confusing messages about food and health, we are poised to confront an open question of a different sort: who or what will be the trusted interpreter of these new breakthroughs to a non-scientific audience,” said Food Foresight panelist Larry Kaagan of Kaagan Research Associates.

Changes

Commodity promotion groups will likely align themselves to either trumpet their “scientifically proven” benefits if they score high in the new findings, or position themselves to defend against possible declining consumption in the face of lower scores or devalued nutritional profiles, as a new and differently structured hierarchy of food takes shape.

Food companies will need to ponder new approaches to product development.

One way to leverage this is through biofortification, the breeding of new varieties of food crops with improved nutritional content.

To whom will consumers turn for resolution and clarification? Food companies? Promotion boards? Scientists? Popular medical or consumer blogs?

Stores, chains or other channels that have earned consumer confidence and proven credibility in other ways, and can connect their customers to reliable and comprehensible information?

The effects on consumer preference and on the assortment, packaging, shopping and replacement patterns at the retail level are likely to be huge.

However, the interpretation of these studies can be complicated. For example, a recent study presented at the American Chemical Society found that popcorn contains higher levels of antioxidants than fruits and vegetables.

While this study received considerable media attention, it is important to note that the key question of whether the consumption of popcorn results in reductions in tissue oxidative stress has yet to be addressed.

Ultimately, the use of biomarkers will be critical in the determination of whether popcorn is indeed as good for you as select fruits and vegetables with regard to the overall risk for tissue oxidative damage that can arise through multiple pathways.

Companies or promotion boards on top of their product health profile and able to address the difficult questions in the field, such as those above, will benefit the most from the increasing consumer demand for health-promoting foods supported by science.

Carl Keen is a professor of nutrition and internal medicine at the University of California-Davis, and a founding panelist in Food Foresight, a trends collaboration between Nuffer, Smith, Tucker and the California Institute of Food and Agricultural Research. Kerry Tucker is chief executive officer of Nuffer, Smith, Tucker, a strategic planning and public relations firm based in San Diego.

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