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MIT Technology Review

Fish-Oil Cookies

Drug-delivery tricks eyed for processed foods

September 1, 2004

How about some fish oil in your dessert? Fatty-acid nutrients known as Omega-3s, derived from certain fishes, are a hot commodity these days because of their putative ability to cleanse arteries. So food companies are mixing them into everything from milk to sports bars to boost nutritional – and marketing – value. Now they are also seeking ways to mix large amounts of Omega-3s into foods like crackers or tomato sauce that can’t normally hide the fishy flavor – and in which the fragile oils more readily break down.

A number of companies are adapting encapsulation techniques already used in the drug industry. In processed foods, the techniques can preserve the fragile oils for months. BioDelivery Sciences of Newark, NJ, encases the fish oil in a calcium and soybean lipid matrix, the same approach it takes with antifungal drugs it has in clinical trials. Raphael Mannino, the company’s chief scientific officer, says the technology works in everything from pasta to chocolate chip cookies and is already “under evaluation by a number of major food companies.”

One company exploring nutrient encapsulation technologies is Kraft Foods of Northfield, IL, owner of brands like Nabisco and Oscar Mayer. Kraft says the widespread use of such technology is all but inevitable in the next few years. It is “the real new trend in the food industry,” says Manuel Marquez-Sanchez, head of the Kraft Foods Nanotek research consortium, which funds university research. Any new food products containing fish ingredients would likely fall under U.S. Food and Drug Administration allergen-labeling requirements.

The market could be large. Health-care analyst Bill Martineau of the Freedonia Group, a Cleveland research firm, estimates that the market for “functional” foods containing medically beneficial nutrients – which hit $23 billion in 2003 – will exceed $40 billion in 2008. So what’s good for you will also be good for the industry’s bottom line. Wendy Wolfson