New results from major functional foods project

Dr Nigel Brunton and Dr Maria Hayes of Teagasc at the NutraMara Conference

Milk drinks that lower blood pressure, meat products that reduce the risk of heart disease, chocolate that calms you down and a new range of foods that can fight obesity can be created from marine animals and plants. Japan already has several product ranges on the shelves and research programmes are in place all over the world to create more.  

Ireland is already well on the way to becoming a player in this multi-billion euro worldwide industry, according to research results of the NutraMara project presented by leading scientists today (Wednesday 14th October) at the Teagasc Ashtown Food Research Centre in Dublin.  

NutraMara is a marine functional foods joint research initiative, led by Teagasc Ashtown Food Research Centre and funded by the Marine Institute and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Launched in April 2008, the initiative is led by Dr DeclanTroy of Teagasc, Ashtown, and involves collaboration of up to 30 scientists across Ireland working in Teagasc Moorepark Food Research Centre, University College Cork, University College Dublin, NUI Galway, University of Limerick, and the University of Ulster.   

“Our seas are a huge reservoir for bioactive compounds that can be incorporated into food additives which can be harnessed for human health,” said Dr Maria Hayes, Scientific Project Manager of the NutraMara Project, which aims to identify novel marine food ingredients and products, allowing Ireland to develop a functional foods industry of its own.  

Researchers are already isolating, characterising and incorporating marine derived functional ingredients into food products.  Dr Pádraigín Harnedy, is researching seaweed as a source of “biofunctional peptides” – protein molecules that promote health by blocking certain harmful chemical pathways in the human body, such as the laying down of cholesterol in blood vessels. “Irish seaweeds have great potential as a source of biofunctional peptides,” she said, “particularly with the small red seaweeds found along our shores. Such compounds have a wide range of positive effects on human health, including killing harmful bacteria, lowering hypertension, assisting our immune systems and preventing thrombosis.”  

One of the most exciting of the new developments coming from the Nutramara project is  the development of a food ingredient that can actually reduce human obesity. It is a startling statistic that in 2004 a survey showed that 67% of the American population could be considered overweight, while 34% (one person in three) was considered obese. In 2007, Irish figures were little better, showing that 39% of our adult population was considered overweight, with 25% (one in four) being considered obese.  

“Obesity is a major threat to human health and a worldwide problem,” said Dr Bojlul Bahar of University College Dublin, who is researching the use of a compound found in the shells of crabs and shrimps called “chitosan”. This interferes with three key factors that upset our body’s natural mechanisms to balance the amount of food we eat against our need for energy. Animal trials of chitosan have already been successfully performed, showing that the compound reduces food uptake significantly.  As such, this represents a major discovery and a possible remedy for a condition that contributes to some 2,000 obesity-related deaths in Ireland each year.  

A number of other European success stories in the area of marine functional foods development were also presented. Dr. Joop Luten from Nofima in Norway who described successes in relation to exploiting marine resources as a source of compounds for functional foods. It is expected that opportunities can be generated for Irish companies to develop their marine research and development capacity in this important area. The industry day in Ashtown, showcased research highlights arising from the project with presentations from each of the institutes involved in the Nutramara project.