What are the main concepts associated with this theme?
Four can be highlighted:
- Food security
The idea can call two different notions to mind: one of access to food (food security) and one of safe food, prepared in hygienic conditions (food safety). In the context of Embrapa's Food, Nutrition, and Health research portfolio, which was created for the purpose of integrating ongoing projects and inducing scientific inquiry towards new knowledge, the focus is on food security in the sense of ensuring access to quality food in enough quantities to meet nutricional needs on a permanent basis.
The nutricional quality of the food consumed is fundamental. The Brazilian National Food Security Council (Consea) stresses the relationship between food insecurity and access to the healthy food, derived not only from the difficulty in acquiring healthy food, but also in the increasing access to food of low nutricional value.
- Functional food
Functional foods are foods that promote benefits to health that go beyond basic nutritional functions. The consumption of functional foods, paired with healthy diets and lifestyles, contributes to reducing the risk of non-transmissible chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and several types of cancer. It has been also demonstrated that some foods have a relevant role in improving mental and physical performance, in modulating the immune system, and others.
Resolution nº. 19/99 by Anvisa, the National Health Surveillance Agency, defines "functional food" or "food with health allegations" as "the food or ingredient that, in addition to the basic nutritional functions that occur when they are consumed as part of the usual diet, produces metabolic and/or physiological effects and/or effects that are beneficial to health, provided that they are safe for consumption without medical supervision".
The substances that are responsible for the beneficial biological effects caused by the food are called bioactive compounds. Among the main types of compounds that have a positive impact on human health, there are plant bioactive compounds of plants also known as phytochemicals, dietary and prebiotic fibers, probiotic microorganisms, bioactive proteins and peptides, and fatty acids (CLA, Omega 3, DHA).
It is important to note that functional foods are not destined to the prevention nor to the treatment of diseases; they are limited to contributing to maintain health and well-being and to reduce the risk of some illnesses.
According to FAO/WHO's definition (2001), probiotics are living microorganisms that positively affect the health of their host when taken regularly and in suitable quantities. They are bacteria that generally pertain to the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium genera, natural inhabitants of the human intestine that are beneficial to the intestinal environment. The probiotics administered by food can influence the composition of the intestinal microbiota, as they are combined to this population and perform important activities for the digestive, immune, and respiratory systems in the intestinal environment.
Prebiotics are defined as carbohydrates that are not digestible by the human body and that are metabolized by beneficial intestinal microorganisms, selectively promoting their multiplication. The consumption of prebiotics can thus modify the composition and the activity of the intestinal microbiota that inhabits an individual by stimulating the beneficial microbial populations, especially lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, also resulting in the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which contribute to the maintenance of the large intestine's normal functions and to reducing the risk of intestinal pathologies.
What are the central issues that prevail in debates on the subject?
One of the main issues under the debate regarding functional foods is the evidence of their effect on health. It is fundamental that the foods announced or traded as functional ones have their health benefits scientifically demonstrated or proven so that consumers are not induced to error. This premise raises another question that still has no answer: which and which amount of scientific evidence is necessary, or sufficient, to prove that the consumption of a given food grants health benefits?
Countless in vitro studies, bioassays in animal models, epidemiological studies and clinical trials with human beings have been conducted so as to prove (or disprove) the specific effects of different foods and their respective components on human health. The genetic variability of the human population and the diversity of food habits and of lifestyles hinder definite proof. Hence, few foods and food substances with alleged functional and/or health properties have been approved by the institutions that regulate food production, both in Brazil and internationally.
What does the legislation on the subject say?
With regard to functional foods, resolutions by the National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa) have established guidelines for the analysis and evidencing of functional and/or health claims in food packaging (Resolution nº18/99) and the procedures to register food with such claims (Resolution nº.19/99). Anvisa has a permanent committee to inform decisions related to the theme, the Commission of Technical-Scientific Advice on Foods with Functional and/or Health Property Claims and New Foods. Such Commission has defined a list of functional property claims that are approved by Anvisa. All foods with this type of claim must be registered in the Agency.
Anvisa also defines and regulates foods for special purposes, that is, foods that are formulated or processed with modifications to nutrient contents to meet the needs of individuals that have specific metabolic and physiological conditions, such as people with diabetes or hypertension, among others. This category comprises foods for diets that restrict nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats, or sodium, and diet foods.