Bone and joint health: the food opportunity

By Michelle Knott

- Last updated on GMT

There is untapped demand for foods that support an active lifestyle as people age, suppliers claim
There is untapped demand for foods that support an active lifestyle as people age, suppliers claim

Related tags Nutrition

Makers of supplements that maintain bone and joint health are now focused on functional foods.

Key points

First, here’s the bad news – there are no foods or supplements that can cure arthritis. “The key thing to note is that there are no diets or dietary supplements that will cure arthritis, whatever type that may be,”​ confirms Olivia Belle, director of external affairs at Arthritis Research UK.

“Some people do find that their symptoms improve as a result of changing what they eat or supplements they take. However, what works for one person may not work for another,”​ she explains.

Nevertheless, Belle says there are several dietary strategies that are assumed to be good for joint health.

Some of these are strikingly similar to the advice offered to tackle many other modern afflictions. They include eating a balanced diet with plenty of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and shifting towards a Mediterranean-style diet with lots of fruit and veg.

However, there are also more-specific ingredients that are thought to be especially important for influencing the health of bones and joints – both positively and negatively.

Vitamins C, D and calcium have for a long time believed to be good for people’s bone and joint health, says Belle. In contrast, saturated fats can increase inflammation and pain, so it’s best to avoid full-fat dairy-rich products, and the likes of crisps, chips, cakes and biscuits, she advises.

“This is relevant to people with inflammatory arthritis, but also to people with osteoarthritis. Omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to help some people with inflammatory types of arthritis,”​ Belle adds.

Mounting evidence around omega-3 (return to top)

The evidence for omega-3s is building all the time. For instance, The BMJ recently highlighted a study that showed patients with rheumatoid arthritis who ate fish twice a week experienced ‘reduced disease activity’ compared with patients who ate fish less than once a month.

The results are potentially important for those looking for functional food ideas, because they imply that eating fish could be an effective way to improve symptoms – whereas previous studies focused on the impact of high-dose fish oil supplements.

In addition, several studies published in journals in recent months boost the understanding of the underlying mechanisms, suggesting that omega-3 fatty acids help drive anti-inflammatory gene expression, lower triglycerides and decrease inflammatory markers.

Other foods under the spotlight include broccoli, with a 2013 study at the University of East Anglia finding that sulphoraphane slowed down the destruction of cartilage in joints associated with osteoarthritis. Most cruciferous vegetables provide some sulphoraphane, but broccoli is an especially rich source.

Previous research had suggested that sulphoraphane has anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties, but this lab-based animal study was the first major research into its effects on joint health.

Joint health’s obesity link

Chemicals in fat can trigger an inflamatory response
Inflamation is triggered by chemicals in fat
Given the level of innovation taking place, there is every reason to believe that joint health claims could soon start appearing on yogurts and other functional foods.

However, the chief issue linking food and arthritis remains obesity, says Olivia Belle, director of external affairs at Arthritis Research UK.

“The main link between diet and arthritis is weight management,”​ she says. “People with arthritis should try to maintain a healthy weight.

“This is important in terms of not putting undue strain on a joint, and also because the more fat someone has, the more prone they may be to inflammation. Chemicals in fat can trigger an inflammatory response in joints in someone who is already susceptible to those symptoms.”

From supplements towards functional foods (return to top)

Commercial products currently targeting joint health in Europe are dominated by supplements, rather than functional foods.

“In terms of osteoarthritis, many people try glucosamine, sometimes combined with chondroitin. Joint cartilage normally contains chondroitin compounds, and it’s thought that taking supplements of these natural ingredients may help to improve the health of damaged cartilage,”​ says Belle.

However, ingredient suppliers believe there is significant mileage in taking a food-based approach, with growing untapped demand for foods to promote healthy joints and support an active lifestyle as people age.

With that in mind, some of them are actively working towards getting their food and drink products onto supermarket shelves. For example, Spanish company Bioibérica has high hopes for its patented Mobilee ingredient, which is rich in the joint lubricant hyaluronic acid (containing 60–75%), collagen and polysaccharides.

The novel combination of ingredients – derived from cockscombs (the fleshy crest on the bird’s head) – has been shown in more than 10 clinical and scientific studies to work synergistically to improve joint mobility.

Mobilee’s impact on joint mobility (return to top)

In December 2013, the European Food Safety Authority approved Mobilee as a novel food, authorising its use in nutritional supplements and milk products for daily consumption.

Scientific studies have shown that daily ingestion of Mobilee for at least two months improves joint and muscle mobility, reduces joint discomfort and inflammation, lubricates the joints and increases muscle strength.

Bioibérica has until now focused its efforts with Mobilee on supplements, but is currently in discussion with potential functional food partners, according to product manager for human health, Monica Gomez.

She believes there is a strong market incentive to address huge untapped demand. According to the World Health Organisation, by 2020 arthritis will become the fourth cause of disability worldwide.

“Recent studies indicate that more than 43% of the population aged between 45 and 65 years have joint problems. After the age of 65, this percentage is higher,”​ Gomez explains.

“Mobilee is indicated for all healthy, active individuals who want to prevent joint problems. It is also for sportsmen and women who suffer joint wear and tear due to overuse. Mobilee is also especially indicated in women who have had children who are going through menopause, as hormonal changes make them more susceptible to joint problems.”

Gomez adds that Mobilee’s recommended daily dosage of just 80mg makes it easy to formulate finished products without interfering with the taste or organoleptic properties of foods such as yogurts.

“With Mobilee, you don’t need to take a capsule or eat food that tastes horrible. A yogurt would taste exactly the same. Functional foods is a very new market for us and there are no commercial products out there yet, but we are currently in negotiations with a number of functional food companies and hope to be entering the functional food market very soon.”

The potential of collagen-based Fortigel (return to top)

Similarly, Gelita believes its collagen-based Fortigel ingredient could soon make the transition from supplements to functional foods.

Although clinical evidence points to the need for a higher daily dose of 5g to realise joint health benefits, Fortigel protein has a neutral odour and taste that can be added to clean-label functional beverages, dairy products or bars, says a company spokesman.

The main difficulty with a food ingredient that requires a relatively high dose per day to be effective is ensuring that people eat enough to feel the effects.

“So far, it is used in supplements. This makes sense as the effect is related to a daily dose of 5g and supplements are dose-oriented. Functional foods might be possible if the exact scientifically approved effects are not claimed but are something like ‘good for your joints’ or similar,”​ he says.

“Fortigel is designed to counteract the wear and tear of the cartilage by stimulating collagen and elastin production. In this case, it is tackling the root cause of the problem rather than just fighting the symptoms.”

With an array of novel ingredients showing promise in maintaining joint and bone health, the move away from supplements to functional foods is expected to continue – and it could herald a lucrative new market opportunity for manufacturers.

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