Medicine in the food cupboard

A new, long-term collaboration between a leading New Jersey university and Tel-Hai College in the north aims at developing foods to treat out ills.

Food (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Many people eat to live; others live to eat. But with increasing research on healthy, functional and medical foods, a growing number of people will consume food to remain or even to become healthy.
“Medical foods” are foods that are specially formulated to enable treatment and management of a range of diseases by meeting specific nutritional needs that are not addressed by normal diet alone. A small public academic college in the Upper Galilee and a major university in New Jersey have joined together to develop this growing niche. If successful, the joint venture is likely to be of significant interest to doctors and laymen around the world.
Tel-Hai College, founded near Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, north of Kiryat Shmona, as an independent academic institution in 1996, is the only college in Israel to operate a full faculty of science and technology (alongside the faculty of social sciences and the humanities) – with core flagship programs in biotechnology, food sciences and nutritional sciences at both undergraduate and graduate levels.
Seventy percent of its student body of 4,500 come from outside the Galilee; about 15 percent are Arabs and Druse.
Rutgers University, officially known as The State University of New Jersey, was chartered in 1766 – before the American Revolution – as Queen’s College. The eighth-oldest college in the US, it is among the top 30 US universities for total research and development funding.
Last month, in a ceremony on the New Jersey campus, university officials, heads of Tel-Hai College and representatives of Israel’s Economic Development Taskforce signed a memorandum of understanding to launch the New Jersey-Israel Healthy, Functional and Medical Foods Alliance.
The primary objectives of the alliance are to foster collaboration between the parties, focused on scientific research, technology commercialization and business incubation, and to develop “a world-class business cluster for the development of the healthy, functional and medical foods industry” in both Israel and New Jersey.
Christopher Molloy, senior vice president for research and economic development at Rutgers, said his university’s wide-ranging research capabilities, faculty expertise and business incubation leadership offer the alliance a strong foundation for its launch.
Discussions that led to the alliance’s formation began during a visit by a delegation to Israel last June by Lou Cooperhouse, director of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center. Initially, they had the idea of an academic project involving student and faculty exchanges and joint research, but it quickly expanded beyond that.
Prof. Yossi Mekori, the incoming president of Tel-Hai College (succeeding Prof. Yona Chen), said at the event: “We see significant outcomes that can result from this alliance with Rutgers, with potential transformation of our food industries in Israel and in New Jersey and extended global impact. Tel-Hai College’s capabilities in academics and research are the ideal platform for this unique and promising collaboration.”
Another figure behind the collaboration who attended the ceremony was Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit, chairman of the Knesset’s Economic Development Taskforce and a veteran entrepreneur. “It has been my vision to establish regions of excellence across Israel that attract investment and encourage significant job growth,” Margalit said. “This alliance with Rutgers will create a center of excellence in the Galilee region that will leverage the area’s agriculture, life sciences and food industry expertise, transforming the region into a medical food global powerhouse.”
People want – whenever possible – to replace medications containing ingredients they don’t understand, with things that are equally effective, yet grow naturally, he declared.
Margalit aims at building seven regions of excellence in Israel, working with local and national municipalities, academic institutions and research organizations to identify each region’s unique competitive advantage, attract investment and encourage significant job growth.
After founding the Jerusalem’s Media Quarter and Beersheba’s Cyber Park, Margalit is leading the development of a regional center of excellence in Galilee designed to promote the area’s agriculture, life sciences and food industry expertise, and transform the region into a medical food global powerhouse.
IN A recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, Mekori noted that having reached the age of 67, he retired from Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Medical Faculty, where he previously served as dean. He has also spent years as head of the clinical immunology and allergy division at Kfar Saba’s Meir Medical Center, which is affiliated with the medical faulty.
As the new president of Tel-Hai College, he will spend several days a week in Rosh Pina. “I am very excited to have the chance to run the college, which is one of the few colleges in Israel offering biotechnology and animal sciences studies, and also conducts basic research both at the college itself and in Kiryat Shmona’s affiliated MIGAL Galilee Research Institute, an applied research organization specializing in the fields of biotechnology, environmental and agriculture sciences.
An economic generator, MIGAL’s aim is to maintain and expand its innovative scientific research activities and extend the economic and societal benefits of those activities throughout the Galilee,” Mekori said. As a physician, he explained, he sees the Rutgers/ Tel-Hai collaboration as very important in assessing and developing healthy, functional and medical food for people around the world.
Among the healthiest foods to include in your diet are lemons, broccoli, kale, dark chocolate, spinach, black beans, salmon, bananas, pumpkin, apples, sweet potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, quinoa, whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, extra-virgin olive oil and fatfree yogurt – a natural medicine cabinet of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Fish, said the new college president, is beneficial, unless it comes from polluted waters.
Functional foods are those that offer a health benefit beyond basic nutrition. But medical foods, said Mekori, are actually formulated to be consumed or administered under a doctor’s care – thus they are like prescription drugs in the form of food with scientifically proven effectiveness. Foods can also be modified to increase the concentration of nutrients so they will have more powerful effects.
But medical foods contain health-promoting or disease-preventing benefits beyond the basic delivery of nutrients. This category of food is aimed in the future at preventing, relieving and even treating chronic diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, metabolic syndrome and lactose intolerance (and other types of food intolerances).
Capsaicin, an active component in chili peppers that produces a burning sensation in any tissue with which it comes into contact, has already been made into compounds that reduce pain in humans.
All of these proposed uses, stressed Mekori, must be assessed and proven before they can be prescribed and eaten or even introduced to the body directly into the stomach or by injection.
It would be the fulfillment of a dream if medical foods would control obesity, hypertension, heart disease, allergies, arthritis, osteoporosis and even cancer, he continued, but this aim is many years into the future.
Researchers have also been working on vaccines that could be developed and delivered via eating potatoes, for example, instead of getting a shot in the arm.
The work at the Tel Hai facility will include not only physicians and food researchers, but also clinical dietitians and behavioral scientists, Mekori said. There could be cooperation with Bar Ilan University’s Galilee Medical School and Ziv Medical Center in Safed.
DR. OFIR Benjamin, a young food sciences lecturer at Tel-Hai College who lives in Metulla and was intensively involved in setting up the collaboration with Rutgers, studied food engineering and technology at the Technion- Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, followed by a master’s degree in Holland and a doctorate in New Zealand. He estimates that some 50 Tel Hai students will be involved in the project each year – a total of 150, with equal numbers of men and women. “We will award students with bachelor’s and master’s degrees,” he said, “and they will work in business, academia and research to offer healthy, functional and medical food.”
Benjamin wants to see foods with less sugar and salt; with added omega 3, improved aroma, texture, taste, shelf life and reservation; and those that treat diseases. “The whole world is interested in this subject, and we want to be part of it. Having a collaboration with Rutgers is very beneficial, as the New Jersey university has a prominent institute for food innovation.” Fortunately, he has not seen any negative influence on the program from the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel.
Tel-Hai College already has made impressive achievements in statistically analyzing and evaluating the foods we eat, said Benjamin, an expert in organoleptic research (organoleptic properties are the aspects of food or other substances that an individual experiences via the senses, including taste, sight, smell, and touch).
One is an “electronic tongue” – the only one of its kind in the Middle East – that can measure and compare the taste of food products.
Located in Benjamin’s state-of-the-art organoleptic laboratory, it provides objective analyses of the relationships between food composition and consumer experience, as well as effects of a food product’s design and environmental conditions during production and storage on final product quality.
The lab is also equipped with a wide array of instruments to measure the texture and color profile of food and analyze its chemical composition.
“Food manufacturers usually use a panel of human tasters for evaluating and testing new tastes and products. The problem is that the human tongue is subjective and each person has his or her own scale of taste. For one person something might be very sweet and for another not sweet at all. The electronic tongue, on the other hand, provides precise, reliable and objective results that are not affected by personal differences.”
Yet, he continued, human tasters are still required in food sensory research, and his lab has held a three-month course to train a panel of professional tasters to identify and profile the taste, smell, flavor and texture of numerous food products. The training was so successful, he enthused, that in his first study comparing different varieties of pomegranate juice, the results from the human panel compared very well to the those from the recently purchased electronic tongue.”
But nevertheless, the objectivity of the electronic tongue is higher than human panels, as the device can be calibrated to maintain uniformity in the taste of a particular product and is useful in identifying the impact of raw materials and production processes in the final taste of the product. In the future, the electronic tongue could be used to test samples of olive oil to identify products, test the quality of fruit, and of milk, after storage, and identify substances in drugs that mask bitterness.
Another project of his lab, aimed at the world outside Israel, is trying to use insects like flies and bees to make food for humans, cattle, poultry and fish. These insects, according to Benjamin, could provide residents of our planet with abundant sustainable food.
Nearly 2,000 types of insects are already believed to be fit for human consumption.
Insects as food take up little space for raising, and some can even turn organic refuse into agricultural compost for fertilizing the land.
Thus, the New Jersey-Tel Hai collaboration has its work cut out for it – and a lot on its plate.