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Role of functional foods in managing disease: what are the views of European consumers?

Leading academics will meet this week to present the initial findings from research into the views of consumers about the potential for functional foods to manage disease risk.

For some people, functional foods may play a role in managing their risk of chronic disease, such as the metabolic syndrome (see notes below). However, for the potential of these foods to be maximised, they need to be acceptable to consumers and consumed on a regular basis. Research to assess consumers’ views of functional foods, along with consumers’ attitudes to the use of new agro-food technologies and genetically modified foods, has been undertaken with consumers from 6 EU countries.

Preliminary findings indicate that generally people are happy to purchase functional foods because they feel that they have health benefiting properties; and although consumers had reservations about foods that had been genetically modified, if they felt that such foods could help tackle chronic health conditions, they felt that they would be a good option.

This work is part of the €12.5m project entitled Lipgene, funded by the EU, which also includes research assessing the potential of modern agro-food technologies to change the fatty acid profile of foods. For example, investigations are underway into the extent to which improvements in the fatty acid profile of milk and meat can be made through changes in the animal’s diet. Also, using genetic engineering technology, researchers are exploring the possibility of developing a rapeseed oil that contains long chain omega 3 polyunsaturates, found to be beneficial for heart health. Lipgene is also investigating the effects of diets with modified fat content on an individual’s risk and management of the metabolic syndrome, taking account of how genetic variation may modify these effects.

In the future it may be possible to tailor our diets based on our genotype to minimise the risk of developing certain diseases, such as the metabolic syndrome. Such cutting edge developments have the potential to make a great difference to consumers’ health as part of a healthy diet; yet, will have little impact if they are not fully understood or accepted. The conference in London will be the first opportunity to discuss the enlightening findings from this consumer research.

Georgina Bentley | alfa
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