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Expert Q&A | Alison Duncan

Alison Duncan

Alison M. Duncan, PhD, RD, is an Associate Professor and Associate Director of Research at the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences, University of Guelph. She teaches in the area of functional food and nutraceuticals and serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Nutrition. (

What are functional foods?

Functional foods are foods that have some component that has the potential to improve human health beyond basic nutrition. That could refer to primarily reducing some risk of disease, like heart disease or cancer or osteoporosis, or addressing some aspect of health like reducing menopausal symptoms.

How can functional foods be used to help manage chronic diseases and age-related issues in retirement residents?

I think the best way to address that would be a four-part idea. First, identifying what diseases are relevant to retirement—arthritis, cognition and heart disease, diabetes, cognitive degeneration, even taste changes and dentition—and then brainstorming about how specific bioactive components of food could address those. After that, figuring out what food matrices those bioactives could be delivered in and then working on developing those functional foods.

A first example would be cognition and heart disease. There’s knowledge about omega-3 fatty acids helping that so there’s potential to incorporate omega-3 fatty acids into things like oatmeal and mashed potatoes in a microencapsulated form. Dr. Ken Stark, a professor at the University of Waterloo, is working on this—incorporating fish oil into those types of food and then creating those functional foods.
Another example could be eyesight. We know that carotenoids are helpful for eyesight, so we can work to create functional foods that have high levels of carotenoids in them. An example is a project I’m involved in at the University of Guelph where a corn crop has been developed that is high in certain carotenoids. The corn is fed to hens that lay eggs that have high amounts of carotenoids, and then those eggs could be fed to humans. Those eggs become a functional food because they address age-related macular degeneration.
Another health issue is poor dietary intake and low protein intake—malnutrition so that can be addressed with protein. Maybe they don’t want to eat meat, so you could look at soy protein and put it into bread.

What new functional foods research excites you and why?

I would say the potential that there is to match a food-related approach to current preferences and habits. By that I mean functional foods research has the potential to take the idea that mashed potatoes are a favourite food and create them to be a functional food. That’s exciting for this demographic because they are less likely to change and move into new horizons of foods that are unfamiliar, and they do enjoy their traditional foods. The advantage of functional foods is that you can take those traditional foods and enhance them with bioactives or constituents or components that would make that traditional food even better for health. Take the idea of oatmeal. It is a common breakfast food enjoyed by people living in retirement or long-term care, and taking that oatmeal and incorporating fish oil into it in a way that doesn’t alter the taste would help residents to have more omega-3 fatty acids.

What is the most important thing that retirement residences can do to improve the dining experience for their residents?

I would really defer to the research by Dr. Heather Keller, who at the University of Guelph has really focused a lot of her attention on the importance of the dining experience and mealtimes as just that—an experience. And to consider and optimize psychosocial and physical environments in order to appreciate and consider things like the way the seats are arranged facing each other to promote conversation, the lighting, the stimulation and presentation of the food and the way things are laid out on the table. And to just realize that the dining experience is more than just the food and that there are things that we can do to optimize that experience, to maximize intake of nutritious food.

What advice do you have for retirement residence executives as they plan their food service operations for the next five years?

Keep in mind that there is substantial knowledge that the food consumed can definitely affect health and well-being in both the short and long term, and it’s so relevant for this demographic. And with that, to consider and learn about the potential for functional foods to possibly—going back to the earlier idea—respect the current eating habits yet still improve the health of the food.

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