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Innovative and natural functional foods

Berries from Finland's forests and across the Finnish countryside are tasty, and good for you too, and there's a lot of them out there. Combining this natural resource with the latest research and technology opens up some exciting possibilities for Finnish companies to develop functional food products that could find customers worldwide.
Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund

Berries have been a part of the Finnish diet probably for as long as people have lived in Finland, and continue to be widely eaten, either directly after being picked or in baked goods and desserts. People have traditionally associated a number of positive nutritional attributes with berries, and they have played an important part in keeping the rural population going through wars and famines over the centuries.

A total of 15 berries can be found among the 20 foods containing the largest concentrations of flavonoids, including blueberries, lingonberries, cloudberries, and cranberries. Photo: Hannu Huttu.

This popular belief in the value of berries has been confirmed by numerous studies conducted by Finnish universities and research institutes, which have identified a large number of probiotic benefits in berries, some of which have already been proven in clinical and other trials.

Locally grown berries, both cultivated and wild, are one of the product groups being focused on as part of the five-year Food and Nutrition Programme, known as ERA, which was launched by Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund at the end of 2004.

ERA has the long-term goal of making Finland a competitive forerunner in healthy nutrition, and building a strong nutrition cluster. Measures implemented as part of the programme will focus on improving international competitiveness, developing health-promoting concepts, and supporting small and medium-sized companies in the sector. A Strategic Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation in the field of food and nutrition is also to be set up.

Those involved in the ERA programme are keen to see Finnish berry-related know-how commercialised into high value-added products capable of making a mark on the international market.

A rich source of flavanoids

The nutritional and health-related benefits of berries have been the subject of active study in Finland since the early 1990s, while how best to preserve and process them has been studied for much longer.

The rich body of polyphenolic compounds known as flavanoids found in berries has been of particular interest to researchers in recent years. These antioxidants, if incorporated into people's diet, have the potential to help prevent the onset of cancer and reduce the risk of people suffering heart and other conditions.

A total of 15 berries can be found among the 20 foods containing the largest concentrations of these types of compounds, including blueberries, lingonberries, cloudberries, and cranberries. Cloudberries are an important source of ellagitannin, which has a number of health-related benefits, including the ability to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, such as salmonella, in the intestinal tract. Cranberries, for their part, are a source of proanthocyanidin, which fights urinary tract infections.

How best to ensure that berries taste good, smell good, and look good, particularly after processing, or as an ingredient in a product, is also important from the consumer's point of view. Taste, in particular, is perhaps the most important factor when people come to make their purchasing decisions, over and above nutritional and health-related benefits.

Luckily, Finnish berries are well-known for their taste, thanks to the short and intense Finnish summer and the clean Northern environment. With the help of new R&D, their taste can even be enhanced with the help of enzymes to make them that bit sweeter, in the case of naturally bitter berries such as buckthorn.

Eat them as such, or use them as ingredients

Given the health-related benefits, great taste, and wide availability of Finnish berries, they make an ideal basis for new food products. Demand for berries in yogurts, yogurt drinks, and snacks is growing all the time, and we can expect to see demand for berry fractions to grow in the future.

In addition to their juice, the skin, flesh, and pips of berries contain a number of functional food components that have the potential to be used as ingredients in other products. The juices and jams that have been produced from berries traditionally make little use of these components in a proactive sense.

What will be important here is the extent to which we can extract bioactive components effectively and retain their positive properties. Work on new types of fractionation technology is already under way, and will play an important part in driving the future of new products based on Finnish berries.

Sitra is an independent public foundation that operates under the supervision of the Finnish Parliament, dedicated to promoting the economic prosperity and future success of Finland.

Sitra is currently targeting programmes focused on health care, food and nutrition, the environment, Russia, and India. These include a mix of research, training, innovative experiments, business development, and corporate funding.

Sitra's experience in business development and commercialising technology, preseed funding, and venture capital investments complements the work of other organisations, such as Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation.

> Liisa Rosi & Anu Harkki
(Published in High Technology Finland )