Eating Your Way Out of Disease
August 1, 2014
Prof. Józef Korczak, head of the Department of Human Nutrition at the Poznań University of Life Sciences in western Poland and head of a project that aims to develop a new form of bioactive food designed to help patients with specific diseases, talks to Karolina Olszewska.
You’re working to develop a new breed of foods with specific properties designed to promote health. Can you tell us some more?
The food is designed to support the treatment of obesity, anemia associated with nonspecific inflammatory bowel disease, hypertension, and type 1 diabetes. However, this food is only a complement to medical treatment and is not meant to replace it. Patients are referred for such dietary therapy by doctors from the clinical centers of the Poznań University of Medical Sciences cooperating with us. The doctors have selected a group of about 600 patients. With their participation we are conducting nutritional-clinical research. We have produced specially prepared food products for them, about 10 for each disease. These are juices, cookies, bread, dessert concentrates, jellies, instant soups, pate, bread, pasta, and groats. We give these to patients, and they themselves prepare dishes to suit their taste.
How can you prove that this food can help people stay healthy and overcome disease?
Patients eat our food for nine weeks, while remaining under constant medical care. The research seeks to confirm the health-promoting effects of the products. Therefore, the research is organized similarly to clinical trials that are conducted prior to placing a new class of drugs on the market. Patients are selected according to all the criteria recognized by the medical community. These must be people who really suffer from a specific disease and at the same time do not have many other ailments that could distort the test results. A placebo group is also necessary. Those in this second group are getting products that do not contain our bioactive compounds. All the patients regularly undergo a set of tests; for example, they have blood samples taken. Biochemical tests are conducted by an international laboratory that has won a tender to carry out the work. The cost of these tests is zl.2.5 million, so it is possible to imagine how many sensitive indicators we use. Although it is not yet possible to draw definitive conclusions, the doctors are already signaling that the patients’ medical indicators have improved.
Where is this food produced?
In factories that produce all the products using our technology. Obviously, this is an intermediate stage. After completing all testing and certification, we will be looking for companies with which we will establish commercial contacts. The research project has confirmed that patients and their friends and contacts are interested in these products. Patients are actually worried about what they will be eating when they stop taking part in the project.
Will this food be mainly targeted at wealthy consumers once it hits the market?
Surveys conducted at the beginning of the project indeed pointed to such a concern. People expected that such food could be expensive. I am convinced, however, that when produced on a large scale, it will not be expensive. Cost calculations for the food that we produce for the research project show that the price is not at all high. We’re talking about the costs of production and the raw materials; it’s no secret that in industry the costs of promotion and sales must be added to that. The daily ration of 8-10 products that we use in the project works out at zl.9 to zl.19 a day per person. We hope that in the future such health-promoting food will be affordable to all patients and those who want to prevent the diseases in question.
And what about consumers worried about Frankenstein food and food that’s been modified by scientists?
Prejudices arise from the fact that the less we know, the more we’re afraid of something. This food is processed in such a way as to enhance its health benefits. We do not use any additives commonly used in production technology. The raw materials are natural, derived mostly from plants grown in Poland. Those who are testing our food accept it completely; they find the dishes tasty. The research program proper was preceded by market research that made it possible to determine consumer preferences with regard to functional foods. What form and what sensory characteristics this product line should have. Patients eating our food feel well after eating it and tests show an improvement in their health parameters. The strategy for putting products on the market must take into account marketing and training activities, for example at online forums visited by patients and during meetings of experts. We hope that this food will help reduce the incidence of lifestyle diseases, which are the leading cause of death and reduce the quality of life. They are also a serious financial burden for the health system. Meanwhile, numerous research studies suggest that the incidence of the diseases in question can be dramatically reduced by choosing the right diet rich in bioactive ingredients. The problem is, however, that these ingredients are present in low concentrations, which limits their effectiveness. That’s why we developed the technology for developing and producing completely new foods from scratch. We compose this food from ingredients that contain an extremely high concentration of bioactive phyto-compounds with a similar effect.
What natural compounds do you add to your products?
These are, for example, mulberry and nettle extracts. Most often this is an aqueous solution that is later dried to powder form. We also use dried leaves of kale, pulverized and added to products in powder form. We grow soybean sprouts on a special substrate and enrich them with iron. They are dried then as well and ground. We do not introduce any fixatives or preservatives during the production process. We tested a lot of different varieties of plants, vegetables and fruit grown in Poland. On their basis, we have come up with 35 products that are currently being tested in terms of nutrition and undergoing clinical trials. We chose those that occur in nature and have long been consumed by people, like tea, nettle and mulberry leaves. In Poland, they are not popular, but in Asian countries they are recommended as ingredients of different dishes, bread and flour-based processed foods.
Nor is our food a dietary supplement, of the kind usually recommended in the form of capsules. This food has an advantage over dietary supplements in that it contains only the indispensable amount of bioactive compounds. It’s more difficult to overdose. In the case of supplements there is a greater risk of overdosing.
Will your line of healthy food products have many competitors on the market for functional food?
We want our innovative line of food products to enrich the range of products available on the market and to broaden the range of Polish food industry export products and increase their international competitiveness. This is the first such project in Poland. Abroad it’s also difficult to point to an equivalent. But, of course, the global functional food market is growing rapidly. For example, the Japanese produce a lot of products with the addition of powdered green tea. They add it to snacks and candy. One example of a health-promoting food product is margarine with the addition of plant sterols. The originality of our products is based on the fact that they are targeted at selected diseases and are meant to produce a double effect—for example, lower the blood cholesterol level and improve blood glucose levels in diabetics, and at the same time protect consumers from obesity or diabetes.
What conditions will future producers have to meet?
First of all, they must apply for a health certificate from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). We hope our results will be the basis for issuing such certificates. For companies this is an important marketing aspect—that such a food product aids the treatment of diabetes or anemia. We’re also thinking of a special label for our line of products. It’s important to maintain the established standards. One of Poland’s selling points is production of good, healthy food. Our program could significantly contribute to the promotion of those sectors of Polish industry and agriculture that are responsible for producing good ingredients rich in bioactive compounds.
Are any Polish companies interested in buying the know-how developed in the course of your project?
We have submitted over 20 patent applications. The problem of going commercial with our products involves decisions about the sale of licenses, patents, and the technology. In this area, everything is done on the basis of tenders and public bidding procedures. You can’t go to any specific industrial plant that expresses a readiness to buy your idea. At the moment, nine plants produce products for us with various additives; this experience will certainly pay off in the future. The technology has been tested on a pilot-plant scale. The project will close with studies of the strategy for putting the most attractive products on the market. These will be conducted by the Cracow University of Economics. We want to promote ourselves during various food fairs. For example, we plan to organize a major conference about our food at the Polagra Food trade in Poznań.
How much time and money did it take to develop your bioactive food?
The Ministry of Science and Higher Education granted us zl.35.13 million five years ago. The project started in January 2010 and will end in mid-2015. At the moment, the National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR) is taking care of the financial side of the project. The expenditures look considerable, but science is expensive. Costly laboratory equipment is needed to carry out the project. We spent a long time studying the sources of active ingredients, isolating the most valuable plant fragments and recovering pure bioactive ingredients. We evaluated them in chemical and sensory terms, paying attention to the content of harmful substances, such as allergens, toxins and heavy metals. After that, products with an attractive taste, smell, color and consistency were developed. We also developed a method for the protection of active ingredients, including proper packaging.
We use the most modern equipment for the analysis of compounds in which we are interested in terms of our ingredients. This includes pressure and gas chromatographs, and many other essential devices. Added to that are the costs of reagents, microbiological and enzymatic preparations, raw materials, laboratory equipment, apparatus, as well as the costs of staff and external services.
The project is being carried out by a research consortium called Bioaktywna Żywność (Bioactive Food), which, alongside the Poznań University of Life Sciences, comprises several other partners from Poznań—the Institute of Natural Fibers and Medicinal Plants, the Poznań University of Economics, and the Poznań University of Medical Sciences—as well as the University of Life Sciences in Lublin [in eastern Poland] and the Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences [in the southwestern city of Wrocław]. The selection of contractors for the project was carried out in such a way so that we could complement one another to the greatest possible extent in terms of academic potential, research experience and scientific expertise.