Engineering food for health?

Agricultural economists have suggested that if everyone were to comply with government dietary guidelines, significant changes would be required in the global agricultural system. 

For example, if everyone ate less sugar, there would be serious ramifications for sugar cane plantations and sugar beet growers.  Maize production would also be affected as corn syrups now account for more than half the total energy-containing sweetener consumption.

At present, at least one-third of cereal grain production is fed to animals.  If the demand for lean meat increases, retail prices would rise, and higher fat products would shift to pet food or industrial uses, or be shipped to export markets.  A reduction in total fat consumption would reduce the requirement for soybeans by 36 per cent and countries exporting tropical oils would also be affected.

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If everyone ate more fish, as dietary guidelines suggest, there would be serious implications for fish production.  According to experts, the oceans have already reached their maximum productivity and the quality of available fish has declined markedly.  Fish farming is of concern due to its damaging effects on the environment.

National Diet and Nutrition Surveys in the UK show that the population is consuming much less fish than is necessary to supply the essential omega 3 fatty acids to the diet.  Deficiency of omega 3 oils and the high level of saturated and trans fats in the diet has been linked with many physical health problems, including heart disease and stroke, cancer, inflammatory conditions and auto-immune diseases. Research also shows that a lack of omega-3 may increase the risk of depression and other mental health conditions.

Some scientists and economists believe that the changes to global agriculture necessary to meet dietary requirements would be so expensive or disruptive that they cannot be contemplated.  Instead of trying to encourage healthier eating in the population, they propose improving existing food using biotechnology, nutrient fortification and development of ‘functional’ foods with added nutritional value.

Food scientists at the University of Massachusetts have recently reported investigations into more economical and reliable ways to incorporate omega-3 fatty acids into foods.  They are developing new microgel capsules to trap the omega-3 fatty acids, chemically stabilize them to prevent spoilage, and allow them to be easily incorporated in beverages, yogurts, dressings, desserts and ice cream, for example. All this apparently without sacrificing taste, appearance or texture.

Other research is looking into the possibility of time-release nanolaminated coatings around fat droplets for delivery at different levels in the human body. For example, coating droplets with dietary fibres so some will break down in the mouth to deliver flavour immediately, while others break down in the stomach or small intestine to deliver peptides that signal fullness or satiety.

Still others might be designed not to break down until they reach the large intestine, where the laminated droplets would deliver anti-hypertensive or cancer-fighting food compounds that can’t survive digestive acids in the stomach. By manipulating food structure, food scientists are also exploring ways to increase solubility in the small intestine so more of the nutrients are absorbed.

Altering food in this kind of way takes us even further from the natural foods our bodies evolved to depend on and raises a whole new set of ethical questions.  Importantly, will such changes to the structure of food have unintended consequences for human health?  Or is this the only way forward in a world with a burgeoning population facing a burgeoning health crisis?

If you would prefer to eat natural whole foods, why not come along to a Cooking for Health course, held throughout the year in the UK.  Whether you are young or old, male or female, ominivorous, vegetarian or vegan, if you are looking for a natural approach to your health and well-being, you will find this course fascinating and potentially life-changing.

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