Bakers Journal

Food as Medicine

November 6, 2007
By Michelle Brisebois

Don’t call the doc, just open the fridge.

It’s been said that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.  This certainly appears to be the case for the world’s super “bugs.”  Antibiotics were a godsend when discovered in the 1920s, but many experts believe our over-reliance on them has created viruses that are resistant to antibiotics.  We need to find non-pharmaceutical solutions, and that’s where the concept of “foodaceuticals” comes in.  Reputable scientists are suggesting that certain chemical compounds found in foods have dramatic and specific health benefits – many of these foods are commonly found in baked goods.  Food nourishes us and keeps us healthy, but is it able to work miracles?  Can we really “take two muffins” and call the doctor in the morning?

Before the discovery of modern drugs, foods were often the only means of curing illness.  With our plentiful food supply, we take for granted how vital vitamin C is to our survival.  British sailors in the 1700s routinely perished from scurvy on long voyages.  Administering vitamin C (found in fresh fruits and vegetables) caused the patient to recover, however, fruits and vegetables weren’t easy to come by in the middle of the ocean.  The Royal Navy prescribed lime juice for the sailors – they were dubbed “limeys” because of this, and to this day, the slang word for British citizens remains “limey.”  Natural remedies were all we had until the 20th century, and the era of the new wonder drugs.  Front line treatment shifted from food to pharmaceuticals.  Many believe that new drug-resistant diseases have evolved due to our dependence on them.  As the bulk of our population ages, many companies are paring back their extended health-care plans in an effort to save costs.  The prospect of finding a miracle in the grocery store suddenly seems more alluring.  Enter the era of the “funct-ional food.”

In 2004, Canada’s functional food market was estimated to be worth $2.7 billion (Agriculture Canada) and that number is growing rapidly.  It’s a trend that those of us in the food industry should monitor closely.  Making heath claims on our shelf talkers or dispensing medical advice isn’t the goal here.  We can, however, assume customers are following these reports and eagerly looking for products, including the more highly publicized functional foods or components.  Here are a few of the ingredients poised to take centre stage in the “foodaceutical” trend.  The good news is that many of them are already part of your inventory!


Dark Chocolate
File this one under the heading “Yes, there is a God.”  While milk chocolate loaded with sugar, and has virtually no nutritional value, the evidence for dark chocolate’s health benefits (containing more than 70 per cent cocoa solids) is stacking up. The University of L’Aquila conducted a study linking the high flavonol content of dark chocolate to cardiovascular health, including improving the function of blood vessels and lowering blood pressure. It has also been researched for its anti-cancer potential, and improving the outward appearance of skin.

Research has associated cinnamon’s active compounds with an improvement in insulin sensitivity in people with impaired fasting blood sugar levels, and improved blood glucose levels in diabetics.  In an article published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Richard Anderson et al., describe the insulin-enhancing complexes in cinnamon.  Cinnamon’s catechin/ epicatechin oligomers increase the body’s insulin-dependent ability to use glucose by approximately 20 times. Consuming as little as one gram of cinnamon per day was found to reduce blood sugar, triglycerides, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and total cholesterol in patients with Type 2 diabetes (Diabetes Care, December 2003).  This spice has also been linked to other health benefits, including Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease.

According to researcher Amy Howell of Rutgers University’s Marucci Center for Blueberry and Cranberry Research, the cranberry is one of the top foods proven to have health benefits. Cranberries have long been associated with their ability to help with urinary tract infections.  The proanthocyanidins in cranberries prevent bacteria from adhering to the lining of the urinary tract.  Other research has suggested that they may be helpful in an anti-aging context, protecting brain cells from free radical damage; and reducing dental caries by combating Streptococcus mutans.


Dr. Martin L. Smith,, from the Indiana University School of Medicine, treated human lung cancer cells with selenomethionine, the major component of dietary selenium.  The experiments revealed that cells are better able to repair DNA damage and stop cancer from progressing when they are exposed to the selenomethionine.    USDA psychologist James G. Penland reports that men who increased their intake of selenium to 220 mcg daily felt less anxious and more energetic, confident and agreeable.  Researchers in Wales observed the same positive effect on mood in a double-blind study of men and women after taking 100 mcg of a selenium supplement daily.  Canadian wheat is known to be especially rich in selenium, so this is good news for our baking industry.  Canadian bread-making wheat can contain up to 50 times more selenium than the same type of wheat from the U.K.  Canadian soil is naturally selenium-rich. In contrast, U.K. soil contains very little selenium. The U.K. is concerned that selenium levels there have been decreasing since they stopped importing Canadian wheat, due to the high levy imposed on it by the EU (European Union).

Olive Oil
It’s long been reported that people of Mediterranean origin enjoy healthier lives.  The American Institute for Cancer Research reports that since 75 per cent of the fatty acids in olive oil come from monounsaturated fat, and only 13 per cent from saturated fat, it’s easy to see why blood cholesterol goes down when olive oil replaces high-fat options like butter. Olive oil also offers several health advantages over more polyunsaturated vegetable oils. It’s suggested that monounsaturated oils seem to cause less production of the bile acids in the digestive tract that can promote colon cancer development.

Ensure your signage promotes the “foodaceuticals” in your baked goods.  You don’t need to make extravagant health claims – simply say “made with selenium-rich Canadian wheat.”  Your customers are reading and watching.  They’ll make the connection on their own.  It’s a prescription for success.

Michelle Brisebois is a marketing professional with experience in the food, pharmaceutical and financial services industries. She specializes in helping companies grow their brands. Michelle can be reached at OnTrend Strategies by e-mail at:

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