CHICAGO — Progress toward the introduction and adoption of bioactive ingredients in food products is being held back by an inadequate regulatory process for evaluating the benefits of such products, said Ray Matulka, PhD, director of toxicology and executive vice president of Burdock Group Consultants, Orla. Dr. Matulka spoke on a panel that discussed, “How is our increased understanding of nutrient bioavailability and biotransformation leading to new innovations?” The July 12 panel was held during IFT First, July 11-13 at McCormick Place in Chicago.
“I believe a new regulatory paradigm is needed to allow structure/function claims for bioactive ingredients to be added to food labels with a lower level of evidence of efficacy than is required for nutrients,” he said.
Moderated by Maxine Roman, leader of startups and disruptive research and development at Kraft Heinz Co., Chicago, other participants included Taylor Wallace, director and CEO, Think Healthy Group, LLC, Washington; Paul Moughan, Distinguished Professor and Laureate Fellow of the Riddet Institute at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand; and Lingyun Chen, a professor at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. The co-moderator was Matthew Teegarten, a professor at The Ohio State University, Columbus.
While the concept of bioavailability — the amount of a substance that enters circulation when introduced into the body — seems straightforward, the panelists said misconceptions abound, starting in the medical community.
“Health providers don’t always know about bioavailability,” said Dr. Wallace. “If you look at the doctors, the nurses, they say take as many vitamins as you want, you’ll pee on them or you won’t take at all, they’re not safe.”
He said those misconceptions “are trickling down to consumers as well.”
Dr. Moughan said that misunderstandings about bioavailability also extend to the scientific community.
“There is a lot of confusion between digestibility, bioavailability and utilization,” he said. “Bioavailability is about the absorption of a nutrient in a usable structural form. Many people confuse bioavailability in that sense with usability.”
He said that such confusion can be found in published scientific articles. Whether bioavailable amino acids are used for protein synthesis depends on many other factors, including aspects of the individual, Dr. Moughan said.
These distinctions may prove increasingly important in the coming years, as plant-based protein utilization tends to be less than animal-based protein, the panelists said. As the sustainability of various protein options is considered, these differences deserve attention, the panelists said.
Dr. Chen said that plant-based proteins can be used to improve the bioavailability of key vitamin nutrients.
“We can develop plant protein-based encapsulation systems that can protect compounds and control their release for increased bioavailability,” he said.
While the enthusiasm for the microbiome is justified, Dr. Moughan cautioned that it will be some time before knowledge of the topic allows for the development of products that help consumers optimize their gut health.
“I think in the long run it will have a big impact,” he said. “There are more things we don’t know than we do. It is a zone in diapers. It is dietary fiber, non-starch polysaccharides, being bioactive. We now know that we can change the composition of the microbiome very easily, very quickly by using different amounts and types of dietary fiber. What we don’t know, nobody really knows is what microbial composition is healthy. We can change it. We can find different microbial populations in different people, but what is the healthiest combination? That is very controversial.
“I believe that as more work is done and we understand the changes in the microbiome data, we will have precision nutrition using particular types of non-starch polysaccharides to change and maintain the microbial population, not only in the colon but also in the upper tract. ”.
Increasingly, scientists are looking beyond individual strains of bacteria when assessing what constitutes a healthier or less healthy microbiome, Dr. Wallace said. He is currently studying the microbiome health of more than 1,000 babies in Central America.
“What I’m learning from experts in the microbiome space is that it’s all about the community, because bacteria grow in communities,” he said. “They function as a community. Many times in research we wonder if this tension increased or decreased. The question is, what is the functionality of that?
Dr. Moughan agreed that focusing on individual strains of microbes is not necessarily helpful.
“In the field of the microbiome, biodiversity is often seen as something more good,” he said. “It is not necessarily true. If you look at babies, babies who are breastfed have much less diversity than those who are fed infant formulas. We really need to understand the microbiome as a community. There is a lot of redundancy. You can make different combinations of microbe species that will do the same thing. They have different diversities”.
In discussing bioactive ingredients, ingredients that trigger actions in the body that can promote better health, Dr. Moughan said the diet should be viewed as “more than the sum of the nutrients” that are consumed.
“We have taken a reductionist approach where we break foods down into nutrients and talk about all the nutrients that are bioavailable,” he said. “Obviously that is very important, but there are many other factors with molecular structures and other constituents that are bioactive. We need to think more in the future about the holistic properties of food. When you do that, it explains a lot of things that we’ve known for a long time. If you look at, for example, dairy, milk products, milk and other products, when you break them down they’re full of saturated fatty acids, they’re high in sodium, they must be bad for you. But we know from epidemiological studies that they turn out to be healthy foods, that they keep consumers healthy. I’m sure it’s due to general structural properties, bioactive compounds, and others as well. We need to know about nutrients, but it’s not the beginning and the end, we also need to know about the holistic properties of food.”
Panelists discussed other parts of the world that do not seem to link standards for bioactive ingredients and nutrients as closely as is the case with the Food and Drug Administration. For example, Dr. Matulka said the European Union has a framework to allow reference to bioactives on product labels that could be helpful.
Dr. Moughan said the United States “can learn a lot from Japan” when it comes to understanding how bioactive ingredients benefit humans.
“They have years and years of experience doing it and doing it very well,” he said.
While all panelists agreed that scientific standards are necessary for bioactives, Dr. Matulka said that the standard used for nutrients is not the correct measure.
“Nutrients are essential for life,” he said. “We need to take a step back on bioactives and say, no, we don’t need to reach that high bar and say it’s essential. We need a slightly lower level to say it’s beneficial.”
Dr. Wallace said that having at least one clinical trial to support claims should be a basic standard to consider.