Course:FNH200/Lessons/Lesson 13

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Trends for Food in Nutrition and Health

Overview In Lesson 1 we discussed the Canadian Food System, including the trends in food consumption. Today, these consumption patterns are including a new trend in foods that provide health benefits to consumers - in other words, an interest in the linkages between FOOD, NUTRITION and HEALTH.

There has been a lot of confusion about the terms used to describe this new category of food products, often referred to as "functional foods", that are consumed not only to meet nutritional needs but also to promote health and/or to reduce the risk of disease.

In this lesson we will examine the concepts of functional foods, nutraceuticals (natural health products) and probiotics, as well as their use in today's food industry. We will also learn about the establishment of the Directorate of Natural Health Products, for those products which are deemed neither food nor drug, and about the ongoing activities related to addressing regulations of health claims for foods.

Objectives Upon completion of this lesson you will be able to:

  • Explain what functional foods, nutraceuticals (natural health products), probiotics, and natural health products are, based on the Canadian definitions; and
  • Articulate your personal position about trends, labelling and regulations related to these products.
  • Demonstrate an ability to find information relevant to regulation of natural and non-prescription health products in Canada

What are Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals (Natural Health Products)?

Functional foods, designer foods and nutraceuticals (natural health products) are terms that are often used interchangeably, to refer to foods or food components with a positive impact on an individual's health, physical performance or state of mind, in addition to its nutritive value. As consumers seek to optimize their health through food choice and demand healthier foods and food ingredients, a strong demand for functional foods has emerged.
Japan was the first country to introduce the term of "functional foods." In the 1980s the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare introduced a category of foods which had health promoting effects. This was done in order to reduce the escalating cost of health care in Japan. The Japanese termed this food category as: Food for Specific Health Use (FOSHU).
The Japanese definition for FOSHU is "processed foods containing ingredients that aid specific bodily functions in addition to being nutritious." Today more than 100 food items are approved as FOSHU, making Japan the world leader in the development of functional foods. The Japanese have set three conditions for defining a functional food:

  • it must be a food (not a capsule, tablet, powder) derived from naturally occurring ingredients;
  • it can and should be consumed as part of the daily diet; and
  • it has a particular function when ingested, serving to regulate a particular body process (defense mechanism, prevention/recovery from a specific disease, slowing the aging process, control of physical and mental conditions.)

The Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare has identified 12 very broad classes of ingredients which they consider to be health enhancing:

  1. Dietary fiber
  2. Oligosaccharides
  3. Sugar alcohols
  4. Amino acids, peptides and proteins
  5. Glycosides
  6. Alcohols
  7. Vitamins
  8. Lactic acid bacteria
  9. Minerals
  10. Polyunsaturated fatty acids
  11. Phytochemicals and antioxidants

Definitions in Canada

Differentiation is necessary between those products sold and consumed as foods, versus products where a specific component has been isolated from a food and is sold in the form of a tablet, capsule, powder, or other concentrated form.
Although the terms "nutraceutical (natural health products)" and "functional food" are used commonly around the world, there is no consensus on their meaning. Consequently, the Bureau of Nutritional Sciences, of the Food Directorate of Health Canada, has proposed the following definitions:

Natural health products are made from natural sources, sold in dosage form, and designed to maintain or promote health; to restore or correct human health function; or to diagnose, treat or prevent disease. They come in a wide variety of forms like tablets, capsules, tinctures, solutions, creams, ointments and drops.
A functional food is similar in appearance to, or may be, a conventional food, is consumed as part of a usual diet, and is demonstrated to have physiological benefits and/or reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions

To give you an example of each Canadian definition, "Born 3 egg" and "Born 3 chicken" (, which are available in Lower Mainland supermarkets, are considered as functional foods because of the additional feature of benefits provided by their high omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid content. However, the omega-3 fatty acid supplements (tablets) that can be bought at local pharmacies and health stores are considered as a natural health products. From these definitions it is clear that functional foods must be presented as a "food" and not as an isolated form or food constituent, which will be the case of a natural health products.

Questions to think about:
  • What has been done to result in the high omega-3 content of these eggs?
  • What other approaches might be used to produce a functional food with high omega-3 content?
  • Do food product labels provide information to identify the source or approach to produce high omega-3 fatty acid containing foods?

Natural and Non-prescription Health Products (NNHPs)

What are natural and non-prescription health products (NNHPs) and how are they regulated?

"Recent surveys have shown that more than one-half of Canadian consumers regularly take vitamins and minerals, herbal products, homeopathic medicines and the like, products that have come to be known as natural and non-prescription health products (NNHPs)."

"These products are used to prevent, diagnose or treat disease, restore or correct function, or maintain or promote health. NNHPs may be derived from plants, animals or micro-organisms."

Examples of NNNHPs

  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Herbal remedies
  • Homeopathic medicines
  • Traditional medicines such as traditional Chinese medicines
  • Probiotics
  • Other products like amino acids and essential fatty acids

NHPs must be safe to use as over-the-counter products and not need a prescription to be sold. (Reference: Health Canada, Health Products and Food Branch, Natural Health Products Directorate, Expert Advisory Committee on Natural Health Products. 2001. Quoted, with bold font added, from the November 2003 (issue 7) Health Policy Research Bulletin of Health Canada).

Think about the following questions:

  • Should NHPs be regulated as foods (with no or limited health claims allowed) or drugs (with the requirement of rigorous standards of evidence based on clinical trials, that does not readily recognize evidence based on a "history of safe use," which many NHPs have enjoyed)?
  • Can NHPs be considered safe for consumption at any dose, since they are "natural"?
  • Should health claims be allowed for NHPs? If so, how will the consumer know what to expect in terms of quality or efficacy or standard level of bioactive ingredient in the NHP?

These questions have led to the creation within Health Canada of an Office of Health Products, formerly known as the Natural Health Products Directorate, to establish regulations and policies addressing the unique nature of NHPs, with the goal of ensuring safe, effective and high quality products, while respecting Canadians' freedom of choice, and philosophical and cultural diversity.

The Natural Health Products Regulations were published in June 2003, in Canada Gazette, Part II, and came into effect on January 1, 2004. The regulations provide details regarding: definitions, product licensing, adverse reaction reporting, site licensing, good manufacturing practices, clinical trials involving human subjects, types of evidence and claims, and labelling and packaging requirements. It changed its name to Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate (NNHPD) subsequent to its recently expanded mandate to include the oversight of non-prescription and disinfectant drugs in addition to natural health products (NHPs) in early 2016.

Take a look at the Frequently Asked Questions about the NNHP Regulations.

Answer the following questions:

  • What types of natural health products are affected by these Regulations?
  • How will consumers know when a natural health product has been authorized for sale by Health Canada?
  • How will products be labeled under the Regulations?

Note that while the licensing of natural health products (NHPs) in pill or tablet form are reviewed by the Natural Health Products Directorate (recently renamed to NNHPD, it is the Food Directorate that reviews NHPs in food formats (e.g. juices, yogurts, etc).

  • What is your opinion on this issue - should health claims be allowed for foods?
  • What risks, if any, need to be considered along with the benefits being claimed for nutraceuticals, functional foods and natural health products?

Functional Foods: Classification and Sources

Functional foods are similar in appearance to, or may be, a conventional food, consumed as part of a usual diet, which is demonstrated to have physiological benefits and/or to reduce the risk of chronic disease beyond basic nutritional functions.

They are developed through various means, such as:

  • fortification with vitamins and/or minerals, beyond mandatory requirements, to provide added health benefits (for example, fortified soy beverages and fruit juice with calcium);
  • addition of bioactive ingredients (for example, margarine with phytosterols, muffins with beta-glucan, yogurts with probiotics, and drinks with herb blends); and
  • enhancement with bioactive components through plant breeding, genetic modification, processing, or special livestock feeding techniques (for example, eggs, milk and meat with omega-3; canola oil high in carotenoids; and strawberries with enhanced levels of ellagic acid).

The table below lists some examples of natural health products and functional foods, with their associated physiological effects.

Natural Health Product Examples Physiological Effects
Dietary Fiber
  • Reduces risk of colon caner
  • Lowers cholesterol
Vitamins C and E
  • Reduces heart disease
  • Cancer prevention
  • Lowers cholesterol
  • Reduces risk of certain types of cancer

Functional Foods Examples Physiological Effect
BenecolTM spread
  • Reduces 'bad' LD cholesterol
TropicanaTM orange juice
  • Minimizes risk of development osteoporosis
Kellogg's All BranTM cereal
  • Helps regulate the gastrointestinal condition

Most of the functional foods that have been developed are beverages. Some examples include Japan's best-selling soft drink "FibeMini" which contains dietary fiber supplement, minerals, and vitamins. Another example is Omega-3 milk beverages" that are now available to Canadian consumers.

Can you think of functional food products available in the Canadian marketplace?

What are Probiotics?

You may want to refer to this link below for additional information:

The term probiotics refers to health-promoting microorganisms that will improve the intestinal microflora balance when deliberately ingested. Probiotics may be consumed in the form of nutraceutical or functional food products.

Examples of probiotics are bacteria from the genera Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Lactobacillus casei, L. casei defensins and Lactobacillus johnsonii are probiotics that can be found in yoghurt and yoghurt-like products in Greater Vancouver.

These lactic acid bacteria are non-pathogenic, gram-positive bacteria that have lactic acid as a primary metabolic end-product and are traditionally used in the production of yogurt. Lactobacillus and various Bifidobacterium sp. are also dominant organisms in the human small and large intestines, respectively. In probiotic yogurts, some of the desirable bacteria are added in the form of concentrated cultures after completion of the fermentation process.

As you remember from Lesson 9, fermented food products provide many nutritional advantages such as ease of digestibility and improved availability of some nutrients. Scientific studies have suggested that by stimulating the growth of bifidobacteria, gastrointestinal disorders, intestinal discomfort, and flatulence can be reduced. There are even suggestions that other serious health problems, such as diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, and even the development of colon cancer may be prevented by consuming sufficient quantity of foods containing viable (live) bifidobacteria. It is believed that the beneficial properties of bifidobacteria against colon cancer are associated with the metabolic conversion, degradation and/or absorption of carcinogenic compounds as well as stimulation of the immune system.

However, these probiotic bacteria (such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidus) must be present in numbers high enough to have a physiological effect on the consumer. These numbers should be above 106 (10 million) viable organisms per ml (or 1.09 per standard serving). In addition, at least 100 ml of the product should be consumed twice per week. Survival of the probiotic cultures during distribution, retailing and in the consumer's home is required to maintain efficacy of those food products (probiotic yogurts) or natural health products (capsules of probiotic bacteria).


FNH 200 Course content on this wiki page and associated lesson pages was originally authored by Drs. Brent Skura, Andrea Liceaga, and Eunice Li-Chan. Ongoing edits and updates are contributed by past and current instructors including Drs. Andrea Liceaga, Azita Madadi-Noei, Nooshin Alizadeh-Pasdar, and Judy Chan.

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