The Chinese have both a rich culture of traditional medicine and a reputation for living long lives, something which has not been lost on western food manufacturers. With the functional food trend constantly gathering pace, food companies are looking to learn more about the huge number of functional ingredients available in China and how best to use them. Bernice Hurst reports.

One of the big questions about ageing is how to combine longer life with healthy life. Producing more food functional goes some way to addressing the issue. And where better to learn lessons on how to do this than China, home both to a rich traditional medicine culture and one of the world’s largest elderly populations?

According to the New York Times, the proportion of people 60 and older is growing faster in China than in any other major country. Keeping a group expected to reach 200m by 2015 healthy is, hopefully, helped by adapting the country’s history of traditional medicine.

A report published following a British trade mission to China, sponsored by the government’s snappily named Food Processing Knowledge Transfer Network, which links researchers and the food industry, speculated that China’s wealth of functional food opportunities could inspire Western manufacturers.

The mission’s objective was “to examine ingredients in traditional Chinese medicines that could become potential functional additions to processed foods”. Their aim was “to understand natural food crops rich in accessible functional ingredients as well as the technologies used to protect functionality through processing”.

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To do this, “the mission examined the Chinese functional food market and reviewed the legislative structure and scientific evidence required to support claims”. Presentations were made by the Chinese Agricultural College on the potential for mushroom extract to improve immune response, garlic immersed in vinegar to produce a green garlic that might have a preventative effect on cancer and a protein extracted from soya-ferritin to use as an iron supplement, especially for vegetarians.

Some 8,000 functional ingredients traded for medicinal purposes are currently registered with the Chinese State Food and Drug Authority. The UK trade delegation is now trying to find out which have been involved in clinical trials and look into possibilities for trading them in the EU.

Mission leader Bob Marsh is reported to have said that “claims for Chinese herbal medicines suggest a huge pharmacopoeia of diseases, which can be treated using single or multiple plant phytochemicals. In recent years, considerable effort has gone into trying to understand the scientific basis of these claims at both the China Agriculture University and China Agriculture Academy in Beijing. Parallel approaches are being taken in UK universities, but without the rich tradition and culture of plant materials on which to draw.”

There are many questions, however. Do Chinese people, with their reputation for longevity, manage to avoid many of the illnesses and infirmities of Westerners? While following their diet more closely and adding various elements to create functionality might be the trigger to a longer life, is it necessarily a healthier one? There is also the issue of quantity, and how much of how many different ingredients need to be added and/or consumed to avoid illness.

Food exchanges between China and the rest of the world are flourishing. The many Western retailers making incursions into China have opened up a vast market for imports. While learning what consumers want to buy, and how, they are simultaneously introducing their own style and products from all over the world. Western manufacturers are now also looking at other lessons they can learn from the Chinese diet. This will only add to the already extensive array of products exported from China to countries all over the globe, as the growing cultural transfer of food products, ingredients and styles shows no signs of slowing.