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Functional foods, Japanese FOSHU foods for specified health us

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Weekend Plus Desk :
Hippocrates, the father of medicine included food as a part of treatment to cure disease. Food as medicine is not something new to a nation like ours with a rich heritage of 5,000 years. The fundamentals of using edible herbs, barks, seeds, stems, leaves and other food items to treat illnesses are well documented in our ancient records including texts like Charaka Samhita. They are an integral part of our ancient healing system of Ayurvedic medicine. The system, however, suffers from a lack or inadequate research and controlled clinical trials. This often leads to conflict with the concept of 'evidence-based' medicine fundamental to modern western medicine.
Modern medicine and food science recognise that food serves a primary function of providing energy and nutrients. It is also established that secondary function of food is that it must be good to taste.
It is the tertiary function that deals with the regulation of physical condition of the body that was recognised later. This led to the formulation of special category of foods called functional foods.
Functional foods are defined as foods that provide special health benefits, which go beyond their nutritional components like energy, vitamins, minerals etc. They are natural or formulated foods that enhance physiological performance or prevent diseases. Functional foods have emerged when limitations of modern medicines have been felt and consumer interest in diet and health is at an all-time high.
Taken from many cultures, herbs and plants commonly used for treatments for specific disorders have been carefully identified. By now, modern analytical methods have identified more than 10,000 physiologically active constituents provided by the human diet, some of which have been developed into medicines.
It was the Japanese in the 80s who developed and commercialised the concept of functional foods. Their Ministry of Health and Welfare initiated a regulatory system to approve certain foods with documented health benefits. Thus, was born FOSHU - Foods For Specified Health Use. This was the first time food could legitimately be labelled and categorised as possessing specific health promoting or disease preventing properties. The government's would provide FOSHU status.
This sort of regulation, backed by scientific clinical trials, unifies the gap that exists between medical, nutrition, food sciences and traditions. The FOSHU system was introduced to encourage the maintenance of health, prevention of lifestyle-related diseases based on the consumption of functional foods with scientific evidence. To secure FOSHU status, there must be adequate evidence of effectiveness of the products; there must be identification of active constituents and guarantee of its safety. There are over 700 products in the Japanese food market that carry FOSHU status.
Benefits of FOSHU food range from cholesterol lowering, blood pressure regulating foods, to those that improve bowel and gastro-intestinal health.
Interestingly, the positive health correlations of functional foods are not on the basis of nutrient content. Non-nutrient constituents contribute beneficial physiological effects that either retard or prevent disease. Some of these include allyl sulfides in garlic and onions that prevent heart disease, phytates in grains and legumes protect against cancer and heart disease, lignans in flaxseeds too have protective effect against cancers, isoflavones in soy protect against osteoporosis.
In India, a wealth of knowledge lies in our ancient texts. Many people have been consuming a majority of these foods for thousands of years to prevent and treat specific health conditions. As there is little recorded history of actual outcomes, their dose controls or identification of possible contaminants, this has put them under uncontrolled and questionable categories.
The average consumer remains unclear, unsure and often under-confident about the usage of foods as medicine, worsened by doubts created by mainstream physicians. It's time that we too establish and put in place a regulatory system for such food, something similar to the Japanese (It's not a coincidence that their average life span is 87 years for women and 78 years for men) or else we may lose out not only patents on haldi and neem but also their health benefits. n

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