In New Zealand, researchers have been exploring the potential health benefits of functional foods for several years.

Anti-anxiety beverages

Dr Arjan Scheepens, a neuroscientist from Plant & Food Research, leads a team developing functional foods for the national and international markets. His main interest and expertise is in the development of mood food beverages, especially those that can help people to relax but remain alert and focused at the same time.

Overseas and local research into consumer demand has indicated a strong request for anti anxiety beverages to ‘calm the nerves’, an effect almost opposite to that of coffee and popular caffeine-based drinks. It is on the basis of this consumer research that Dr Scheepens has developed his Mood Food programme.

The current research is partly focused on some of the bioactive phytochemicals found in dark-coloured berry fruit such as blueberries, blackcurrants and boysenberries. Most of these belong to the polyphenol class of compounds.

Although they have the desired bioactivity of ‘calming the nerves’ without loss of alertness, they tend to be poorly absorbed into the bloodstream, with most being seen by the body as ‘foreign’ and in need of removal.

A side-arm of this research is to increase the bioavailability of these plant chemicals such that they will be more easily absorbed by the body and possibly also increase their access across the blood/brain barrier. Once in the brain, they can then exert their anxiety-reducing and calming effect with the added benefit of allowing the person to remain alert and focused.

Testing the effects

To test the effects of the beverages, Dr Scheepens has created elaborate psychometric tests purposely designed to inflict stress and anxiety on the test subjects.

Test results from before and after consuming the beverage, in comparison to a taste-matched placebo beverage, have been compared. Care has been taken to run the strictest type of clinical trial with a randomised, double blind, crossover and placebo-controlled design. At this stage of the programme, preliminary findings indicate that the beverage might have anxiety-reducing effects.

Adding value to our exports

Arjan says that developing functional foods has huge potential to add value to New Zealand exports. “Instead of raw fruit, for example, we could make a product from raw ingredients that New Zealand would own the intellectual property rights to, which makes them far more valuable than the original raw product. It also allows us to export value-added products, akin to exporting furniture instead of whole logs.”

Aside from the work on berry fruit, the Mood Food team is also looking at the effects of selected New Zealand native species and other crops including vegetables and hops.

Nature of science

Any claims that research in the functional foods area makes have to be backed up with evidence. In the research work that Dr Arjan Scheepens is involved in with mood foods, any claim made needs to be supported by clinical trial evidence.

    Published 18 March 2011