Research Tool Helps Validate Efficacy of Functional Foods

Developed by researchers in Germany and Australia, the Fraunhofer-Monash work flow tool identifies bioactive compounds and degradation products in food from processing through consumption to assist in the formulation of healthier and safer products.

The food supply chain, from primary production through industrial processing into products and ultimately, the preparation of foods, embodies a challenging array of variables for systematic study. A particular challenge is to track the fate of specific molecules through processing and cooking environments and then to follow in vivo metabolic processes.

To overcome this challenge, we have developed a unique research-friendly workflow (i.e., Fraunhofer-Monash workflow) that starts with the radioisotope, 14C, placed within a target molecule and fed at low dose. Using ultra-high sensitivity LC-MS analysis, the 14C label permits the detection of degradation compounds produced either on the shelf (in-food), during processing or preparation for eating (in-process), and/or metabolites produced post ingestion (in-body). The identification of specific 14C-labeled metabolites creates powerful second and third horizons of enquiry that can inform processing conditions or formulation design. In particular, the workflow includes the option for chemical synthesis of metabolites, enabling deep insight into molecular nutrition and food safety.

A key application of the Fraunhofer-Monash workflow is for discovery and validation of molecules of interest in commercial “functional” foods, and to verify actual metabolites and degradation products for study of potential benefits and risks to consumers. These methods are now ready to support faster resolution of uncertainties in food bioactivity, safety and quality, so as to create healthier foods, and accelerate understanding of the complex food and health paradigm.

Food and Health

Authoritative organizations like FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) and WHO (World Health Organization) clearly indicate that nutrition (compared to lifestyle, environment, etc.) exerts the major impact on the health status of individuals. Accordingly, the increased awareness in recent times of the leading role nutrition plays in well-being has led to health benefits being an important motivator for food choices. As a result, a major innovation focus of the food industry is in the development of functional food products with specific health-related properties, in recognition of the strong market demand and benefits for consumers.

This trend is accompanied by a similarly growing demand for food ingredients that comply with “clean” labeling and that product label health claims are supported by independent and sound scientific evidence. Currently, there are many bioactive or functional ingredients for which we have a basic understanding of their role in health and well-being. However, the research is typically focused on the parent compound (or chemical class) but does not account for degradation products formed during food processing or domestic preparation, nor metabolites generated in vivo.

Unless linked with a specific food safety challenge, chemical transformation products formed through these multiple and complex pathways have been previously considered “too hard” to study within a holistic approach that seeks to understand both consumer benefit and risk. On one hand, consumers seek functionality in foods that enhance health, while on the other hand, they fear that “novel” formulations may contain additives that form products with unknown properties. A well-known example is acrylamide. After the accidental detection of this carcinogenic toxicant in processed foods, it took three years by available state-of-the-art methods to decipher and verify its chemical origin, and to develop strategies for its avoidance (Stadler et al. 2004). A full understanding of in-food/in-process chemical pathways and in-body product/metabolite interactions is now within reach using the Fraunhofer-Monash workflow.

Fraunhofer-Monash Workflow

In spite of the complex and divergent possibilities of chemical reactions that occur, the current approach is to simply compare the analytical recovery of the parent food ingredient or compound before and after processing. As such, intermediate products or side reactions have been previously ignored and treated as a “black box”, as most food products represent matrices with enormous complexity and potentially ongoing chemical reaction dynamics. This complexity makes it, up to now, impossible to decipher the fate of individual precursors or the generation of intermediate or final chemical products.

However, in the same way that biological heterogeneity and complexity has been tackled by the suite of “omics” research, technologies are also now available to address chemical heterogeneity, and chemical reaction dynamics in the context of food matrices and stressors. It is imperative that novel molecular research tools for interdisciplinary nutritional life sciences are now applied to understanding complex food systems. If we don’t, the void of understanding allows misinformation to reach consumers and fuel anxiety. In the absence of scientific facts, consumers may be susceptible to pseudoscience, falsehoods or even outright lies about the food supply. This new workflow—aiming to secure factual understanding about the chemical and biochemical fate of bioactive ingredients—addresses one of the two key factors in consumer trust. More