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Kubomura Food Advisory Consultants Japan Food Innovation 久保村食文化研究所

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FUNCTIONAL FOODS in Japan

The term ‘ functional foods first entered the language of Nutrition in Japan, because it was the first country to translate into modern terms the long-established link existing in Asia between diet and health, KIYOKO KUBOMURA, of Kubomura Food Advisory Consultants, looks at developments in the market.

 

In 1991 specific legislation concerning ‘foods for special health uses’ (FOSHU) was adopted, which made it possible to make limited health claims, on the basis of a scientific dossier, after receiving approval From the Ministry of Health, Labour and Trade in Japan. The relevant products relate to over 150 items including 224 FOSHU products, which as of end February 2001 are permitted to refer to the authorized health claim and carry a logo on the packaging.

A working group of the Council of Europe has recently defined a ‘functional food’ as one which has 2 beneficial effect on one or more target functions in the body, above and beyond its usual nutritional effects in a way which is relevant to either an improved state of health and well-being, or reduction of risk of disease.

We still have to define what is meant by ‘beyond its usual nutritional effects’. Diet, as defined by Recommended Daily Intakes (RDIs), can include not only normal foods, but also enriched foods (in which the initial vitamin or mineral content has been restored) and fortified foods; plus special dietary foods which cater for the special needs of some consumers.

Functional foods go beyond these basic needs However they must still be foodstuffs, and it must lx possible to consume them in quantities which art compatible with a normal, balanced and varied diet.

Examples of such specific nutritional agents are: probiotics which are defined as being microbial food ingredients that beneficiary influence human health beyond the conventional nutritional effects of normal traditional foodstuffs; prebiotics which are defined as being fermentable substances which have a beneficial effect on intestinal flora; synbioric substances ,ill, which as proposed by Gibson in 1995 exhibit a combination of both prebiotic and prebiotic health effects; biogenic substances which are defined as being those components of the diet which are physiologically activated peptides and/or plant flavonoids.

In Japan, the concept of functional food applies to all traditional Foods. Recent research in fresh, fermented dairy products has shown that many of them have properties which go beyond the ‘usual’ properties attributed to foods; so !at they can be classified as a functional food. The microorganisms used in the fermentation of these functional foods are mostly probiotics.

According w this definition, amongst the lactic acid bacteria, only those which have such beneficial effects are probiotics. A food containing a probiotic is itself commonly referred to as a probiotic food, or even simply as a probiotic. The table gives a selection of such evidence.

Most of the studies were first pioneered in Japan and now in Europe as part of a multi-center European research project started in 1996 with the objective of demonstrating that probiotic micro-orgarzisms do positively affect human health in rigorously conducted human clinical studies.

The studies have proved that certain probiotic micro-organism strains can influence the composition of the intestinal microflora and modulate the host immune system with measurable benefits to health. These included the control of atopic eczema in infants with food allergy; controlling inflammatory bowel disease and other infections in children and the elderly. A lot of promise was also shown in the prevention and treatment of diarrhea diseases, chronic intestinal ailments like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, and for immunization.
Nutritionists, clinicians and microbiologists worldwide now realize the importance of the function of the human large intestine and of the microflora they contain to human health. It is now thought that the colon is an authentic organ of nutrition and not one of putrefaction.

According to Ko Shiino at Morinaga: ‘Most intestinal diseases are caused by unbalance of normal intestinal flora and/or increased production of purrefactive substances in the intestine. Probiotics are both single or mixed cultures of beneficial live micro-organisms which improve the intestinal microbial balance of the host.’ Probiotics are regarded as conveying active ingredients to their targets in the digestive tract. They exert direct effects on the chyme, microflora, enterocytes and immune competent cells to restore normal healthy intestinal microbial balance and to reduce the production of putrefactive substances.

A prebiotic on the other hand is defined as being a fermentable substance which has a beneficial effect on the intestinal flora. Included in this category are fructo- and galacto-oligosaccharides, lactulose, other xylo-oligosaccharides, lactosucrose, soybean-oligosaccharides, raffinose, inulin, sugar alcohols, etc. These substances may be added to a food or may be produced in situ, as in the case of the oligosaccharides, which are made by certain bacteria during lactic fermentation.

Traditionally, probiotic organisms used by the dairy industry in yoghurt, fermented milk, etc. are not usually good survivors in the human intestinal tract. So organisms naturally present in human gut have been developed for their capability to survive. This shift by the food processing industry to intestinal tract organsms varies between genus but also between strains.

Thus probiotics from dairy products like lactococci, streptocci and thermophilic lactobacilli are destroyed during gastrointestinal tract passage; whereas those of intestinal origin such as Bifidobacterium, L. plantarum and/or L. ncidophilus traverse the small intestine and colonies in the colon in high concentrations. Only recently has scientific evidence become available for defining probiotics and their strain-specific effects in human health in an acceptable manner. A typical selection of such Japanese strain specific probiotics presently used in Japanese functional food products are: L. acidophilis NCFC., L. rhamnosus GG., L. reutni 1063., L. plantarum 229v., L. casei YIT (Shi- rota)., L. johruonii G1. Another group is B. breve., and B. longum BB53b., which belong to Bifidobacterium and finally E. feculis, a well known lactic acid coccacea.

A milk to which oligosaccharides have been added is a food which acts on the digestive flora, since it increases the number of bifidus organisms. Hence it is a prebiocic food; but is it a functional food?

In Japan, this improvement in intestinal flora is considered to be a function and it is classified as a functional food. In Europe increasing bifidus organisms is not classified as an improvement in nutritive function. So even though bifidus are recognized as being desirable ‘flora’ it is not enough to justify their classification as functional foods. On the other hand soluble fiber accelerates digestive transit, so if added to this fermented milk it is then classified as a functional food in Europe, due to this specific transit effect.

Another example of a functional food in Europe would be a margarine containing phytosterols which reduces the blood cholesterol level; since it causes a reduction in an intermediate marker of’ cardiovascular disease.

Is a probiotic in capsule form a functional food? Yes ,in Europe and the USA, where the capsule form alone is not enough to classify it as a medicine. If the ingredients are dietary products and no medicinal treatment illness claim is made, the product is a food for regulatory purposes.

In Japan it is forbidden to classify a product in capsule form as a food; so it cannot also be treated as a functional food. For example in 1917 ‘Biophelmine’ a ‘lactobacillus’ product has been marketed as a typical medical product whereas ‘liquid yoghurt’ a lactic acid drink has been on the Japanese market as a health food since 1935 and it has taken a long time for our consumers to appreciate the effect of the lactobacillus bacterium it contains as beneficial for maintaining their good intestinal condition.

Recently our functional foods are becoming more and more sophisticated and innovative. We now use various combinations between probiotics, prebiotics and biogenics to improve our intestinal condition.

Catchwords such as ‘low calorie, non caloric, cholesterol reduction, prevention of cardiovascular disease, maintaining health intestinal condition’ including fortified vitamin and mineral products are now very common place.

The Japanese lactic acid drink (ie, Lactobacilltts bifidus) market has the largest turnover ol’ about 80,000,000,000 yen (4E686M) with fermented milk/yoghurt approximately 2,000,000,000,000 yen. In particular the lactic acid drink marker has increased about 8’/o over last year. At the same time production volumes have increased over 10% among non-dairy companies.

When companies produce yoghurt they use a typical lactobacilli, such are thermophilus. bulgaria. Then they add a probiotic food ingredient.

So it looks as though Japan will continue to lead the world in this interesting, and buoyant market.

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