I.F.T. panelists say keep science, nutrition and consumer attitudes in mind

by Jeff Gelski
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ROSEMONT, ILL. — The session’s title spoke to a better understanding between nutritionists and food scientists. Much of the discussion also focused on ways to better understand another element in the food and beverage business — consumers.

All seven panelists had Ph.D. after their names in the general session "Can the Combination of Food Science and Nutrition Accomplish the Impossible? A Socratic Discussion" held March 25 during "Wellness 09: At the Forefront of Food & Health," an event sponsored by the Institute of Food Technologists.

Forests, trees and bark were used as metaphors when Dr. Brian Wansink, Ph.D., a professor of marketing at Cornell University and formerly executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, spoke about how food scientists and nutritionists may work together. He said he noticed people who focused on one area — he likened it to staring at a tree instead of the forest — seemed to graduate from universities more often. People who were an extreme expert in one area — he likened it to staring at bark — seemed to have success in their careers more often.

Nutritionists and food scientists might advance the causes of meeting health needs and business objectives if they better understand how their work affects one another, or if they could see the forest along with the trees, Dr. Wansink said.

Consumers, meanwhile, need to understand science is evolving, said Dr. David B. Allison, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Biostatistics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and moderator for the session. When The New York Times reports on one study, the story gives no perspective on other studies on the same issue, he said.

"We as scientists play into that," said Dr. James O. Hill, Ph.D., director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado at Denver. "We can’t wait to get our studies published (in scientific journals) so they can end up in The New York Times."

Nutritionists and food scientists need to have realistic goals when dealing with human behavior, Dr. Hill said. It’s unlikely consumers will be able to cut down intake by 400 calories per day for a sustained time, but they may be able to reduce intake by 50 to 100 calories per day. To help consumers accomplish this reduction, the food industry may make small changes, such as by increasing the amount of fiber in products while reducing the amount of fat, Dr. Hill said.

Food and beverage companies may want to launch new products that do not require new consumer behavior, said Dr. Gilbert A. Leveille, Ph.D., executive director of the Wrigley Science Institute. He gave the example of sugarless gum, a new product that when first introduced did not require new behavior. Consumers already chewed gum.

Industry needs to modify existing products, he said. For example, companies may attempt to convince consumers to switch to a more healthy breakfast cereal.

"That’s doable," Dr. Leveille said.

Products promoted as natural have caught the attention of consumers recently. Dr. Hill said industry should respect consumer opinions on their own definitions of natural. Companies should avoid telling consumers they do not know what they are talking about when it concerns whether or not consumers believe a product is natural.

The members of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee should try to understand behavior components, said Dr. Roger A. Clemens, Ph.D., a professor at the

University of Southern California’s School of Pharmacy and a committee member. While people may expect medication to provide immediate relief, healthier food may require more patience, Dr. Clemens said.

Dr. Allison said he wonders if some food promoted for a specific health benefit may appeal to solely niche markets. He gave the example of pomegranate products appealing to a niche market of people interested in avoiding prostate cancer.

Superfruits show promise
But more studies needed to support claims

ROSEMONT, ILL. — Following the two-click rule may prove dangerous for companies promoting superfruits in their products, said Diane B. McColl, a principal with Hyman, Phelps & McNamara, P.C., Washington. The two-click rule involves making it more difficult to find scientific research about products on company web sites. Consumers may have to click at least twice to find the studies. Some companies may believe government agencies will not be industrious enough to click twice, see the studies and then investigate the accuracy and depth of the research, Ms. McColl said.

"That’s not necessarily the case," she said. "They’re out there looking at web sites."

She added the National Advertising Division and the Food and Drug Administration also are collaborating and sharing information more often now.

While some companies offering superfruit products may believe they are able to run below the F.D.A. radar with their claims, Ms. McColl said she discourages this practice. She gave advice on health-related claims for superfruits March 25 at "Wellness 09: At the Forefront of Food & Health," an event sponsored by the Institute of Food Technologists.

She advised companies to avoid drug claims when promoting the superfruit benefits in their products. They should avoid using words such as cure, mitigate, prevent, disease and treat. Giving structure/function claims and listing antioxidant content are potential options. A claim saying "quenches radicals that cause aging" might be safer than a claim saying "reduces radicals that cause disease."

Ms. McColl added, "You cannot mention cancer. I don’t care how many studies you have out there."

Dr. Stephen Talcott, Ph.D., associate professor of food chemistry for Texas A&M

University in College Station, Texas, also spoke March 25. He said research on exotic superfruits, such as acai and camu camu, began less than 10 years ago. Researchers know about the chemical composition of these exotic superfruits, but little is known about absorption and metabolism. Few animal studies have been done on exotic superfruits, and human studies are rare. Pomegranates probably have more research to back up claims than any other exotic superfruit, he said.

Research funding will be crucial for the validation of superfruit claims, Dr. Talcott said. He said funds potentially may come from the National Institutes of Health, the National Mango Board, Blue Diamond Growers, the National Grape Cooperation Association and Ocean Spray.

Every fruit has its own special benefits, Dr. Talcott added.

"Saying one is super, I kind of have a problem with it," he said.

One fruit may be higher in fiber, but another may be lower in sugar content, he said.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, March 31, 2009, starting on Page 37. Click here to search that archive.

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