BY OUR PHARMA CORRESPONDENT
12th August, 2005: With two-thirds of Americans becoming overweight, the $550 billion processed food industry in the country is increasingly going for whole grains, fiber and fish oil. Currently, food scientists of every major player in the food-ingredients sector are reportedly working on ways to find products that have less fat, white flour, sugar and salt.
Figures indicate that foods labeled as healthy like Baked Lay's potato crisps, Tropicana orange juice, Diet Pepsi and Quaker oatmeal are growing at double the pace of other products.
In their efforts to develop healthier stuffs, several of the firms have come out with amazing results. Proteus Industries in Gloucester, Mass, for instance, has introduced low-fat fried chicken. The chicken contained 50 per cent less fat than a typical piece of fried chicken.
Food ingredient companies today sell $4 billion worth of additives to the food industry a year. Additives are responsible for many of the common properties of processed food. Additives, for instance, keep the fruit in yogurt suspended, not plopped at the bottom. They make sure that chicken dinners do not come out of the microwave hot around the edges and cold in the middle, and they allow many foods to stay in warehouses or on supermarket shelves for up to nine months without spoiling.
Tate & Lyle of London, one of the largest food-ingredient companies in the world, makes the popular sweetener Splenda. It recently started selling a whole-grain "cracker system" composed of Splenda and hydrolyzed wheat protein, an additive that has been manipulated - either chemically or through enzymes - to give the softness of white flour without adding carbohydrates.
Other ingredient companies are focusing on what they can add to food to make it healthier. Both Cargill, the commodities giant that has a large food-ingredient business, and National Starch Food Innovation, the food arm of National Starch and Chemical based in Bridgewater, N.J., and itself a unit of the giant Imperial Chemical Industries of Britain, have seized upon the fact that the average American consumes less than half the fiber each day that the government recommends.
Nutritionists consider fiber beneficial because it prompts slower, steady digestion, preventing spikes in blood sugar and insulin. It has also been shown to lessen the risk of colon cancer.
Omega-3 fatty acids, which studies have shown to protect against heart disease and are essential for brain development in infants, is another ingredient that food companies are clamoring over. Last September, the FDA. approved the health claim for omega-3 that it may reduce the risk of heart disease. The best source of omega-3's is the oil in fish. But fish oil is, well, fishy, and is not a natural fit for inclusion in the likes of bread, muffins and cereal bars. To deal with this, National Starch recently perfected technology that encapsulates fish oil, so it can be added to foods without an unappealing taste or smell.
Kellogg has signed a 15-year licensing deal with Martek Biosceinces company that sells omega-3 fatty acids derived from algae, which have a milder smell and do not necessarily need to be encapsulated. Kellogg declined to comment on the deal or when the algae-based omega-3's might appear in its products.
However, food companies maintain that their consumer research shows that convenience and taste still outrank nutrition as the top priority for most people and that consumers have no intention of giving up their favorite foods.
If Americans stopped eating large quantities of fried chicken, sweetened breakfast cereal, cookies and snack chips, the financial health of many companies would suffer.
And that is why food firms like Proteus Industries keep searching for the perfect recipe for low-fat chicken.
BY OUR PHARMA CORRESPONDENT