CHICAGO — The momentum behind the burgeoning health and wellness trend was on display during the Institute of Food Technologists 67th Annual Meeting and Food Expo, held July 28 to Aug. 1 at McCormick Place. As in past years, the topic was woven throughout the meeting’s numerous general and scientific sessions and prominent at many suppliers’ booths on the exposition floor.

Representatives from some of the food industry’s largest companies gathered for a general session on July 30 to discuss how health and wellness has changed their companies and provide their perspective on where they see the trend going.

"What is really driving health and wellness is changing demographics," said Y. Marc Belton, executive vice-president of worldwide health, brand and new business development for General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis. "No. 1 is aging baby boomers. There are 140 million people who are trying to deny aging as well as death. These people are interested in health and wellness and they are who we are marketing to with most of our products."

Mr. Belton added that by 2015, 50% of America will be people of color and they are also a target for some of the efforts around health and wellness.

From his company’s perspective, he said they viewed the topic of health and wellness from three perspectives: weight management, heart health and proactive health, which he defined as encompassing organics, and food products containing functional ingredients such as probiotics and omega-3.

Omega-3 fatty acids have played a role in the evolution of General Mills’ Yoplait yogurt brand. In March, the company introduced Yoplait Kids with the DHA omega-3 fatty acid. In July, the company added a drinkable yogurt to the line.

By 2010, Mr. Belton said General Mills intends to have 40% of its overall product line qualify as healthy under the company’s definition of the term. The challenge they face, however, is making sure the transition toward a more healthy formulation does not compromise taste.

Dr. Chor San Khoo, vice-president of global nutrition and health for Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., said her company sees a shift taking place regarding how consumers define the topic of wellness.

"We predict that in the next 10 years there will be major changes within the wellness market that will affect the food industry in terms of how we develop, market and sell products as well as how they are regulated," she said.

She defined health and wellness as a mega-trend that is the confluence of several trends, including an aging population, obesity, nutrition individualization and more women entering the workplace.

"This is leading to a changing definition of wellness," Ms. Khoo said. "We are seeing a changing definition in the consumer’s mind regarding wellness as a way of reducing risk factors, but what they are also looking for is quality of life. Consumers are coming to expect wellness will bring them another benefit, which is to live longer."

Japan’s functional experiences

Japan boasts the most developed functional food market in the world, according to data presented by

EuroMonitor during one of the many scientific sessions held during the I.F.T. In Japan, there are more than 650 products approved as Food for Specified Health Use (F.O.S.H.U.), the world’s first policy of legally permitting the commercialization of numerous functional food and health claims. The country also is looking toward functional foods as a way to better address maladies specific to its culture — specifically allergies and fatigue, said Makoto Shimizu, a professor at the University of Tokyo.

"Looking to the future, researchers in Japan are looking to try to regulate body systems to decrease the risk of lifestyle-related diseases, to modulate immune systems and to reinforce body defense," Mr. Shimizu said.

With 30% of Japan’s population reportedly suffering from allergies, efforts are under way to add immunity-modulating foods to the F.O.S.H.U. categories.

One focus of the research has been on a green tea drink with possible anti-allergic properties. The tea contains substances called methylated catechins that have demonstrated anti-allergen properties.

Research has appeared to confirm the product’s safety in cells, mice and humans, and has concluded its active ingredients are more readily available to the body than other catechins. Still, researchers haven’t been able to fulfill all the necessary F.O.S.H.U. requirements, but the Japanese Association for Food Immunology is working to establish better evidence for the product, Mr. Shimizu said.

Efforts are equally aggressive to find a food to fight fatigue among Japan’s population suffering from chronic tiredness. And there is also interest to establish anti-fatigue foods as another F.O.S.H.U. category. Mr. Shimizu noted that as much as 59% of Japan’s population feels fatigued. Thirty-seven per cent

described themselves as "chronically fatigued."

Each year, Japanese consumers spend on average more than 20,000 yen — $168 dollars — on energy drinks despite a lack of significant evidence of the drinks’ efficacy.

More research is needed

Despite the interest in health and wellness, it could be decades before science is able to accurately measure the body’s systems to determine which foods, in what quantities and combinations, will best combat against disease and illness. But when that time comes, expect each diet to be as individual as the person.

"The informed consumer is a good consumer," said Bruce German, a professor at the University of California at Davis and consultant for Nestle.

Mr. German addressed designing diets that fit individuals’ health profiles.

"We have to understand what’s going on tissue to tissue," he said. "We have to understand food in all its aspects — its structure as well as our personal preferences about taste."

Getting enough essential nutrients, the goal of nutritional health during the 1900s, has led to obesity, diseases like Type 2 diabetes, and a fundamental ignorance about the relationship between food and health, Mr. German said.

"The decision to separate food and nutrition was a disaster," he said. "We have to put those two fields back together again."

While functional food appears today to be a popular means for individuals to craft their own healthy diet, Peter Clifton, a professor at Adelaide University in Australia and researcher with the country’s national science agency, called functional foods "a myth."

The evidence is patchy that fish oil could reduce heart disease or dementia unless taken in large doses, Mr. Clifton said. Similarly, eating lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes, did not reduce prostate cancer in the studies, he noted.

Mr. Clifton also illustrated that beta-carotene consumed in large amounts, according to one study, was associated with the increased risk of prostate cancer.

"One needs to be cautious about recommending willy-nilly to increase these nutrients," Mr. Clifton said.

More science is required to prove these "strongly marketed additives have any positive effect," he said.

Mr. Clifton did give a nod to probiotics, calling them beneficial in preventing gastrointestinal problems. While Americans currently do not consume as much yogurt as Europeans, Mr. Clifton said if they do, "there will be a dawning of more probiotic products."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, August 7, 2007, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.