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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 October 2006, 10:04 GMT 11:04 UK
Feeding frenzy: Clever foods
By Adam Harcourt-Webster
BBC Money Programme

Flora and other healthy spreads
Healthy spreads have captured a bigger portion of the market

More and more of us are going to the supermarket rather than making a trip to the doctor for our medication.

We're buying foods with that something extra added, from bacteria to plant extracts and fish oils, in the belief that these products can make us healthier and even brainier.

But are these so-called 'clever foods' really are worth the extra money we have to pay and can they really make us healthier?

Many researchers believe that you would have to drink five litres a day of probiotic to see any effect
Open University -Eating for Health

New clever foods are appearing on the supermarket shelves all the time, but the bulk of the market is in three main areas: probiotics, cholesterol-lowering foods, and products with added Omega 3.

Probiotics and cholesterol-reducing products are now well-established in the shops, and Omega 3 is rapidly gaining ground. The clever food market is proving extremely profitable for the manufacturers.

Fast growth sector

With annual sales now at 1 billion, these clever foods represent the new growth sector of the British food market.

Overall, 20% of what we spend goes on food and drink, with around 85 billion worth of groceries consumed at home each year.

Health claims have been made for foods for about 150 years
Tom Sanders, Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics
In the last few years sales in the clever foods sector have risen steadily.

Financial information company AC Nielsen predicts it will double in size over the next year.

Professor David Hughes, a food marketing expert, maintains that our obsession with buying foods with health benefits means clever foods are the future for the food industry.

"Low fat, reduced sugar doesn't do it any longer - that won't get you growth. If you have a specific health problem and there's a product out there that will help you manage it, then that's what will drive extreme growth", he says.

Profit margins

Fierce competition and the dominance of the big supermarkets have put a downward pressure on food prices, and the food industry in general is now struggling to maintain growth at all.

Clever foods can bring big profits and all the big players like Unilever, Danone and Muller are active in the sector. The concept of adding something to food to provide a health benefit isn't new, as Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics, Tom Sanders, points out.

"Health claims have been made for foods for about 150 years. Most people don't realise that something quite simple like a digestive biscuit was marketed because it contained sodium bicarbonate, and sodium bicarbonate was thought to be good for your digestion," he says.

Wartime rationing and its hangover into the 1950s forced the government, and the food companies, to take nutrition seriously. That period saw vitamins being added to food, notably breakfast cereals, to improve the nation's health.

Margarine transformed

But it was the transformation of margarine into a health food that led to the birth of the modern clever food industry.

By the mid-1980s margarine had changed from being high in polyunsaturated fats to having half the fat of butter, and then in the 1990s the Finnish company Raisio brought about the biggest transformation of all.

Their scientists managed to refine an extract from pine trees which could reduce cholesterol., which they added to their brand of Benecol margarine.

The science behind cholesterol lowering margarine is solid.

The plant extracts that reduce cholesterol are called sterols and stanols, and according to Professor Sanders, when they're added to "margarines and shot drinks, they can give you about 10% reduction in blood cholesterol, there's no doubt about that." Close on Benecol's heals came Unilever.

They had been working on similar research and soon after Benecol's launch they brought out their own cholesterol-reducing spread, Flora pro-active.

With Unilever's marketing expertise behind it, Flora pro-active overtook Benecol and is now the biggest selling cholesterol-lowering product in the UK.

Fastest-growing segment

The fastest growing clever foods in Britain are the probiotics.

Mainly in yogurt or drinking yogurt form, they have actually been around for more than seventy years, and have been especially popular in Japan, where the Yakult brand originates.

Now they have caught on in the UK in a big way, with the big brands like Actimel and Yakult leading the way.

Britain's enthusiasm for probiotics is not based on the same solid scientific evidence that backs the cholesterol-lowering products.

Probiotics are often called 'good bacteria', and the theory is that by introducing them into the gut to enhance the 'good bacteria' already present there, bad bacteria are forced out.

The theory is that probiotics can boost the immune system and aid digestion, but do they work? The science is not yet conclusive and much of the evidence is anecdotal.

Professor Sanders says that it appears that "people are actually noting changes in their digestive function that they find perhaps beneficial. But there really isn't any clear scientific evidence to show their health is better."

The real problem he says is that "they haven't really defined what it is that people feel better from when taking probiotics."

Omega 3 additives

The new growth area in the clever food market is the use of Omega 3 fish oils.

The scientific evidence that eating Omega 3 is beneficial for heart health is well established.

But now something else about them has grabbed the headlines: is Omega 3 good for the brain too?

Experiments carried out on children in 2002 suggested that Omega 3 had an effect on brain function, increasing the ability to concentrate and consequently the ability to learn.

The experiments seemed like a medical breakthrough and food companies rushed to incorporate Omega 3 into products like milk, bread and eggs.

Adding Omega 3 has raised the question of whether foods containing it might be making claims that simply don't have sufficient scientific evidence to support them.

Which?, the Consumers' Association magazine, is particularly concerned.

Which's Michelle Smyth says:

"If a company, no matter how big it is, wants to make a claim about its particular product, you have got to have that evidence. Otherwise, potentially, people are paying a lot of money for things that don't deliver, which is not fair".

The debate on clever foods is likely to continue.

The Money Programme Feeding Frenzy: Clever Food? BBC 2 Friday, October 13th at 7pm

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