Emerald Star International: A Short History Of Health Food Industry

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Functional Food Industry And The Functional Foods Concept

BY: Kenneth Z. O'Connor, Chief Science Officer

The concept of consuming foods for health dates back centuries, to Hippocrates’ famous quote, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

From these roots, nutritional science has evolved from a simple focus on identifying nutrients and the corresponding dosages required, to preventing deficiencies and diseases, to a focus on improving our overall health and quality of life. Although people have been consuming foods for specific health reasons for years, the term “functional foods” was not commonly used until the early 1990s, when it quickly began to replace the term “nutraceuticals.”

Initial research into functional foods centered on health benefits conveyed by several specific foods such as soybeans, garlic, broccoli, parsley, flaxseeds, red wine, and other “superfoods”.

This “whole foods” phase was followed by the identification of specific components such as lutein, probiotics, prebiotics, flavonoids, anthocyanidins, lycopene, and omega-3 fatty acids. More recently, there has been an integration of these two approaches, with continued attention to specific compounds and a growing awareness that the consumption of certain whole foods yields health benefits. (Food for Thought V; International Food Information Council Foundation, Dec 2005. Available at: www.ific.org; accessed 11/30/05.).  

Over the past several decades, a growing number of people have sought greater control over their diets and their lives in general. This groundswell of public interest culminated in the nutritional awareness that surrounds us today.  

In the early 1960s the nutritional industry (AKA: The Health Food Industry) was just coming out of its infancy. Public desire to return to nature and all things natural percolated through universities, into the youth of the US, Europe, and to some extent, the entire planet.  

The underlying hope of the day was that “a good diet” was linked to “good health.” As true as this may be, there was, and still continues to be, much debate as to exactly what is “a good diet.” But the public was willing to accept the concept of “good” and “bad” nutrition and was willing to pay more for the distinction.      


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