By John Finley
A symposium, to be held Nov. 3 & 4 in Grand Forks, will examine one of the most promising developments in the area of functional foods. "Emerging Markets in Selenium-Enriched Foods" will bring together leaders in science, industry and production agriculture to discuss whether marketing a food for its ability to improve health represents added-value agriculture. More specifically they will discuss whether increasing the content of selenium in agricultural plants and animals will lead their subsequent commodities to be sold at a premium.
The event, which will be held at the Ramada Inn, is hosted is jointly by USDA-ARS Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center; North Dakota State University; the University of North Dakota; North Dakota Department of Agriculture; and the South Dakota Wheat Commission.
A major portion of research at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center is how selenium, a nutritionally essential mineral, helps to prevent cancer. The current director of the Center, Dr. Gerald Combs, was one of the principal investigators of a study on the East Coast of the United States, which demonstrated that consumption of 200 micrograms per day of supplemental selenium reduced the overall risk of cancer by almost 50% and specifically reduced the risk of prostate cancer. Currently, a large multi-national trial with over 35,000 participants is seeking to confirm that finding. Positive results from the current trial certainly will create a global demand for selenium supplements, and North Dakota may be sitting on top of a valuable resource.
Many areas of North Dakota have soils enriched in selenium. Crops grown on these soils contain high concentrations of selenium. It is possible that eating crops grown on high-selenium soils in North Dakota will reduce the risk of cancer. The important question facing North Dakota agriculture is, "Does the potential health benefit of reducing the risk of cancer add monetary value to crops grown in high-selenium areas?"
The symposia will bring together leaders in agriculture, the food industry and science to discuss this issue. There are many associated issues: Are all selenium-enriched foods equally effective for reducing cancer? If not, which foods are best? Which foods are most suited to North Dakota agriculture? What factors other than the amount of selenium in the soil affect how much selenium accumulates in a food, and can those factors be controlled? Can selenium-enriched foods be segregated from non-enriched foods, and if so, how can the consumer be assured that a so-labeled food contains selenium? What is the target consumer group and what is the best method to market to that group?
The question of whether increased selenium concentrations improve the value of commodities, such as wheat and beef, is only part of a much larger issue. That issue is whether 'healthy' foods can be used to create a premium market for commodities. Again, North Dakota could be in an advantageous position. We have a 'healthy' image and perhaps slight changes in production and marketing can lead to national and international sales of 'Healthy and Natural Dakota Foods' such as omega-3 fatty acid-enriched flax, low glycemic-index buckwheat, mineral-enhanced, colon healthy beans, low-fat and high mineral beef and bison, high-selenium Indian mustard, high mineral, and poly-unsaturated fat-enriched sunflowers. The consumer is increasingly demanding foods that are healthy, and the consumer is increasingly willing to pay a premium for those foods. If North Dakota agriculture listens, it may benefit both the consumer and producer.