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Pharma Foods

Customised foods, tailored to provide specific therapeutic benefit, blur the line between pharmaceuticals and food as nutrigenomics allows individualised diets to fit genetic profiles

As awareness of advances in biotechnology is increasing, a growing area of interest is in the use of foods for medical purposes. While there there is a long standing tradition in many cultures of  using natural herbs and foods to treat ailments. In recent years, so called ‘superfoods’ ,such as blueberries and acai,  have received increasing attention, particularly in the media.  Interest is now rapidly switching to foods with clinically enhanced properties. Probiotics, prebiotics, functional foods, clinical foods and neutraceuticals are all talked about and promoted as being good for you either in generally or by specifically targeting a bodily function, such as improving digestion, bone density and so on. As technology evolves and more is understood about how to tailor food and drug combinations to better fit individual needs,  , the opportunities for tailored foods that use improved genetic profiling are burgeoning. By 2020, many in the pharmaceutical and food industries  predict  the biotechnical  advances  of foods grown in the field and drugs developed in the lab to combine. In the next decade we can expect to see a shift in some of our basics from traditional “farmer- foods” to more sophisticated “pharma foods.”

It is useful to understand the different terminology that is being used in this area as it can be confusing. . Functional foods are scientifically prepared foods that provide health  benefits beyond  normal nutritional values. Health Canada for instance defines functional foods as “ordinary food that has components or ingredients added to give it a specific medical, other than a purely nutritional effect.” They provide the body with vitamins, fats, proteins and so on.,  as an alternative to taking dietary supplements in liquid or capsule form, functional foods are either enriched or fortified. This restores the nutrient content in a food back to similar levels found  before the food was processed. Sometimes, additional complementary nutrients are added. For example, vitamin D is often added to milk and probiotics and/or prebiotics may be added to foods. Probiotics are, in the eyes of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.” Probiotics such as lactic acid bacteria are often found in yoghurts and yoghurt drinks and typically help lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and improve the body’s immune functions. Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth and activity of bacteria in the digestive system which are beneficial to the health of the body. They are considered a functional food and are typically found in foods like raw garlic, leeks, onions and asparagus. Superfoods such a blueberries and acai, are defined as “food considered especially nutritious or otherwise beneficial to health and well-being.” Superfoods can therefore  also  considered  as functional foods.

Neutraceuticals, which as a term comes from a combination of nutrition and pharmaceuticals,  is described as “food, or a part of a food that provides medical or health benefits, including the prevention and / or treatment of a disease.” So one person’s functional food can be another person’s neutraceutical. Given that they are cheaper than pharmaceutical products and can sometimes provide some of the benefits, neutraceuticals are a growth sector attracting pharmaceutical and biotech companies including the likes of Monsanto, DuPont, Abbott, Johnson & Johnson, Novartis and Genzyme Transgenic. Lastly, clinical foods, or medical foods, are specifically formulated to meet certain nutritional requirements of people with specific illnesses. They are regulated and therefore prescribed by physicians. Neutraceuticals are therefore not  clinical foods.

While these products have been appearing on the market in recent years, the next step in foods targeted for medical benefit is now on the horizon. The big change is the link between food preparatrion and nutrigenomics which is applying the sciences of genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics to human nutrition. Nutrigenomics is a relatively new science and is  the application of high-throughput genomic tools in nutrition research: Now that the human gene has been sequenced and we can understand more about our make up, nutrigenomics is essentially the science that allows us to tailor food to fit our genetic profiles.

Pharma foods, “biopharmaceuticals “or “farmaceuticals,” are one outcome of this and are compounds produced from genetically modified crops or animals. They provide higher than usual amounts of various nutrients that can be consumed as foods. What distinguishes them from functional foods, neutraceuticals and their like, are that they are not naturally occurring. They are engineered to provide specific health benefits: For instance, gene “pharming” allows scientists to alter an animal’s DNA by  combining it with DNA from another species. The resulting genetically modified animals, transgenic cattle, sheep, goats and chickens, are tailored to provide embedded drugs and proteins for human consumption. Plant-made pharmaceuticals are produced by using similar technology in plants . As a group, such pharma foods have been a controversial issue. For example back in 2007 several food companies lobbied the US Department of Agriculture against the introduction of pharma foods due to “concerns about their negative impacts on food safety, on markets for food crops and on the integrity of the wider food supply.” PepsiCo saw that “the significant risk of crop contamination that is present when plant-made pharmaceuticals are produced in food and / or feed crops leads us to the conclusion that the only way to prevent such a contamination is to prohibit their production.” In its 2008 Corporate Social Responsibility report, concern about the testing of plant-made pharmaceuticals, General Mills stated that “to fully ensure the safety of world production via plants and grains, General Mills currently opposes moving to production any so called ‘pharma-food’ that would use a food crop or food grain to grow or produce plant-made pharmaceuticals.”

However, despite this reticence, given the increasingly populous and hungry world many companies are now progressing with the development of pharma foods. In his initial perspective on the Future of Food, Jim Kirkwood, highlighted the opportunities and challenges:

Pharma-foods, the intersection between food and pharmaceuticals, is an area of growing opportunity for many in the food sector. As consumers demand more technologically sophisticated foods with unique, complex health benefits, food companies will need to respond. We now understand more about individual’s disease propensities from the human genome. Therefore nutrigenomic determination of diet becomes technically possible. Technology is advancing and as natural bioactive components are better understood, the line between pharma and food will blur: The challenge will be how to continue to find new ways to continue to provide natural, food-delivered preventative health benefits and begin to provide natural, food-delivered disease state improvement benefits without food becoming a drug.”

In a future of food workshop in Ireland this view gained clear support.  As well as the wider recognition of the global need for more proteins and nutrients participants saw that “genetic profiling is advancing very quickly and is now  accepted as a good thing,” “business models in the pharmaceutical sector are encouraging significant investment in the area” and that “neutrigenomics will fundamentally change consumer healthcare  as nutritional screening becomes a standard part of health check-ups and, consumers readily provide their genetic profile.” Although  a controversial subject, given the benefits to be gained, the fast pace of technology development and a shift in government regulation on the horizon, the advent of widespread pharma-foods  by 2020 looks increasingly likely: Customised foods that match medical benefit to your genetic profile will be in your shopping basket soon.

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