The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes it as 'an epidemic' and one of the greatest health challenges of the 21st century for Europe. 'It' is obesity. The WHO predicts there will be 150M obese adults and 15M obese children in Europe by 2010 if no action is taken.
Some may argue the food industry is partially responsible for all these bloated bellies. But this scary scenario also provides an opportunity for manufacturers to create healthy products that can help to provide part of the solution by helping consumers to control their appetites and weight.
A recent report by market analyst Datamonitor says UK consumers alone will spend £86 per person per year on diet products by 2009. The report, Overweight Consumers and the Future of Food and Drinks, says the UK and Germany share the dubious distinction of having the highest proportion - more than 20% - of seriously overweight consumers in Europe.
Food manufacturers are developing a range of ingredients, including appetite suppressants, in response. Unilever is working with Phytopharm in a well publicised £21M project to use the extract of hoodia gordonii, a rare South African cactus, in weight management products. The San bushmen of southern Africa have used hoodia for generations to combat hunger when food is scarce.
Other ingredients are claimed to reduce body fat yet preserve muscle, such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Then there are foods such as dietary fibres and prebiotics that are marketed as gut health products, but also affect satiety by making consumers feel fuller for longer.
"Satiety is the inhibition of hunger and eating that arises as a result of food consumption. It determines the pattern of eating," explains Markus Smet, head of marketing and strategy at Naturis, which supplies various ingredients to the food industry including soya, soluble and insoluble fibres.
Disillusionment with weight loss plans is fuelling demand for functional foods that influence satiety, says DSM's David Jobse, product manager of weight management ingredient Fabuless, an emulsion of palm oil and oats. "Consumers are fed up with diets, yet they're more interested than ever in managing their weight," he claims.
"The concept of satiety is well understood by consumers. It's easy to understand that weight management is all about the balance between calorie intake and expenditure. So we see a great future for products that help consumers to manage their calorie intake."
Fabuless is used in various yoghurt drinks in Europe, such as Portugal's Versus, a 90ml shot-sized beverage, and Italy's Action Calorie Control. Talks are also progressing in the UK, with a view to a 2007 launch, predicts Jobse.
Fabuless manipulates the body's illeal brake mechanism, which tells it to digest fat only when it hits the bottom of the small intestine. This delayed digestion suppresses hunger signals. Jobse cites four independent studies that say Fabuless cuts calorie intake by between 12.5-29% at subsequent meals.
Dietary fibres (various plant substances that resist digestion) may also help people to lose weight by improving satiety.
They are low in calories, have a low glycaemic index and are often used as fat replacers in everything from ice cream to baked goods. (The glycaemic index ranks carbohydrates according to their effect on blood glucose levels.)
"The soluble fibres beta-glucan and inulin have other health benefits; they lower blood cholesterol and improve gut health," explains Naturis's Smet.
Orafti claims its prebiotic chicory root extract Beneo oligofructose not only makes consumers feel full for longer, it may also protect against heart and liver disease.
One of the factors causing obesity is the build-up of fat in the body's tissues and other organs. This is called steatosis and particularly happens in the liver. "It's been proven that Beneo inulin and Beneo oligofructose reduce steatosis and decrease the amount of fat in the liver," says Davy Luyten, Orafti's marketing co-ordinator. Orafti claims that no protection is given against steatosis when other dietary fibres are added to a diet.
Others also claim that their ingredients do more than control weight. Neopuntia from BioSerae is food grade cactus leaf powder, which absorbs fat in the stomach. In the summer, a study on 60 women found that it also balances blood fat levels, which helps to manage Syndrome X, a metabolic disorder.
Neopuntia decreased 'bad' (LDL) cholesterol by 10%, but improved the level of 'good' (HDL) cholesterol. Nearly 60% of the women were found to be free from metabolic syndrome at the end of the study.
CLA: fighting flab
CLA is on the frontline of the fight against fat, too, although it is currently only approved for use in food supplements in Europe and not foods. Animal and human studies have shown that it speeds up the rate that fat burns and prevents it from depositing in cells. It also helps the body to breakdown existing fat stores. CLA, an essential fatty acid, is traditionally found in beef, dairy products and vegetables.
There have been more than 1,400 studies into the health benefits of CLA since 1987, says Dr Sandra Einerhand, director of nutrition and toxicology at Lipid Nutrition. "Some 66 papers have been published on human studies, the rest are on animal studies and in vitro studies using cell cultures."
In May, Lipid Nutrition reported that a recent six-month study at the Scandinavian Clinical Research Centre in Norway proved that its Clarinol CLA reduced fat in the legs and abdomen. "Apart from this body shaping effect, less fat in the abdomen is especially healthy as fat there poses a health risk to the heart," says Einerhand.
So how does it work? "The enzyme lipoprotein lipase (LPL) makes fat cells take up fat not used for energy. CLA works by reducing the storage of fat in fat cells. It inhibits the LPL enzyme and stops fat cells getting bigger," explains Dr Einerhand. "The fat goes to the muscle cells where it is burned. CLA helps the muscle cells to burn fat by stimulating an enzyme called carnitine palmytoyl transferase, increasing lean mass."
In August, The International Journal of Obesity published a paper on the effects of Tonalin CLA, developed by Cognis. The findings suggest Tonalin could have long-term health benefits by preventing weight and fat gain commonly experienced by adults during the Christmas holiday and as part of the normal ageing process. Tonalin CLA is made from the linoleic acid of safflowers and is available in a range of oil and water dispersible powders.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US wanted to see if Tonalin would help overweight adults significantly reduce body fat over six months and prevent weight gain during the holidays.
Cognis says the participants who took 4g of Tonalin a day safely reduced their body fat mass by 1kg and their weight by 0.6kg. Conversely, those in the placebo group gained 0.7kg of body fat mass and 1.1kg of weight.
However, there is so much research and so many products on the market that consumers need to be sure companies are telling the truth. The new EU Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation, likely to be published in 2007, aims to clarify matters by harmonising the health claims system across member states. Only claims that can be scientifically proven after an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) will be accepted.
"The law is getting tougher, which is good for the industry. Consumers aren't ready to believe empty promises any more and stronger regulation will help to build trust," says Catherine Thimonier, BioSerae's marketing manager. "We don't make direct claims such as 'lose kilos' as this can be considered misleading."
The EU Regulation will ban all health claims relating to slimming and weight control that refer to altering psychology or behaviour (like 'reduces stress'), references to individual doctors and vague claims about 'general wellbeing'. It will also require evidence to substantiate any new health claims made after the law enters force. "Claims used on products marketed before this date can still be used if a dossier is submitted and evaluated positively," says Jobse. "We'll support producers with all the evidence we have and will await the evaluation with confidence."
However, don't such products encourage an irresponsible attitude towards eating, and offer a fast-track solution to weight problems? No, state the companies - unsurprisingly.
Smet says: "New methods of obesity control are required. It's reasonable and appropriate to influence individuals from affluent societies to obtain a healthy diet, including foods with added benefits."
Others insist CLA is not a fast-track solution. "You have to take it for at least six to eight weeks; it works gradually," comments Einerhand. "CLA doesn't have the negative effects of a crash diet, prevents the yo-yo effect and you don't get hungry all the time. There's a moderate, but steady decrease in fat."
However, Thimonier argues consumers should not view weight loss ingredients as a panacea.
Overall, she says: "It's part of the manufacturer's role to encourage people to follow a healthy lifestyle and then take a dietary supplement. People will only manage to lose or maintain weight with a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise."
Which is what doctors have said for years.
The WHO is holding a ministerial conference in Istanbul on obesity on November 15-17. It is hoped member states will adopt a European charter to provide local guidance on fighting the problem.
- Today, 30-80% of adults are overweight in most European countries
- Obesity rates have tripled in the last 20 years
- Obese people have an increased risk of developing Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and certain types of cancer
- Obesity is responsible for two to eight percent of health costs in different countries in Europe
- About 20% of children in Europe are overweight
- The UK's Department of Health says the average life expectancy for men will be five years lower by 2050 if trends continue
- In western Europe, at least two-thirds of adults are not sufficiently physically active and activity levels continue to fall