Irish food firm has right fibre to help US agency


An Irish-based expert on dietary fibre has been briefing the US Food and Drug Administration. He talks to Science Editor, Dick Ahlstrom.

When the US Food and Drug Administration comes looking for help, most researchers would be happy to oblige. Such was the situation when an expert from an Irish company was invited to Washington late last month to talk about dietary fibre.

Dr. Barry McCleary is technical director with Megazyme, based in the Bray Business Park. He is also a world expert in food starches, a form of carbohydrate found in a wide range of plant foods that break down to provide the energy we need for life.

He knows everything one might want to know about starches, for example how select enzymes break the starch down to form sugars, what the intermediate sugar compounds look like, and, most importantly, how to develop test systems to measure all of these things.

"We develop test kits and reagents for the food, feed and fermentation industries," Dr McCleary explained. "We specialise in the development of methods for measurement of enzymes and sugar compounds which dictate the quality of the final product."

It was in this context that he was invited to speak to a panel of experts in Washington to give his views on how to measure "resistant starch" in food, a type of starch the body finds difficult to digest.

The FDA is currently revising how it assesses claims made by companies on their food product labels, but is having difficulty establishing objective, scientific measurements for these claims. It in turn asked the US National Academy of Sciences to establish a panel of experts that would gather the latest research on various aspects of food science. Dr McCleary was one of only five international specialists asked to meet this Academy panel and provide expertise on resistant starches.

The Academy's interest was based on his reputation and his company's success in developing test methods for food substances. "Fifty per cent of our company's business is measuring enzymes," Dr McCleary explained. "Every major enzyme manufacturer in the world would be standardising its products with one of our test kits."

Importantly for the company, four of its test systems have been adopted as the official international standard test method used by the Association of Official Analytical Chemists (AOAC). It only chooses standard tests after international trials involving labs from around the world to confirm that the test works everywhere and in all contexts, and most importantly that it delivers accurate results.

"The method has to work extremely well across a wide range of labs," he said. "The FDA relies for its methodologies on the AOAC."

Dr McCleary, originally from Australia, established the company in Sydney in 1989 and moved it "over a weekend" to Bray in 1996. It employs 10, including two other full-time research scientists, who develop new tests with Dr McCleary.

There is currently a big fuss over resistant starch, hence the Academy's interest in the work done by Dr McCleary. "The reason resistant starch has become so important is because resistant starch behaves like dietary fibre" in the gut, he said.

All nutritionists now agree about the importance of eating dietary fibre as a way to reduce certain diseases. The problem is that not all fibre is the same. Much of it is reminiscent of eating bark or munching twigs. "Dietary fibre is like exercise, I should do it tomorrow," Dr McCleary acknowledged.

Certain resistant starches, however, can be "hidden" in bread or cereal, delivering the obvious benefits of fibre without the often disagreeable taste and texture. Only certain forms of the starch deliver this benefit however, hence the FDA's interest in thwarting dramatic but unsubstantiated claims on labels.

All of the big international starch manufacturers are now pushing hard to get their resistant starch products to market. "These companies are desperate to get their resistant starches accepted," he said.

And this has provided yet another opportunity for Megazyme. There are tests for certain resistant starches, but none are accredited as a standard by the AOAC. Nor are the tests able to measure only those starches that have a proven physiological action.

The company has come up with a test method and hopes to have it ready later this spring. It would then set up an international "inter-lab" trial with the AOAC before the middle of this year. The tests will be confirmed against "in vivo" data, analysis of digested remains provided by volunteers, a rather unsavoury but necessary part of the process.

If Megazyme pulls it off it will have a ready market for the product. The manufacturers will use it to prove the value of their products and the international food watchdog organisations will be able to pop inflated claims made about the goods on our supermarket shelves.

Technology in Business, by Dick Ahlstrom

The Irish Times