Selenium - slow start in functional foods

By Dominique Patton

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Immune system

Emerging research suggests that selenium, a trace mineral, may have
numerous health benefits but no-one is educating consumers about

Just last week US scientists presented the findings of a study that linked incidence of osteoarthritis with low selenium levels. Although they have not yet proved a direct cause and effect relationship between the two, their study points to a potential benefit from the mineral, already shown to have anti-cancer activity.

Last year, a UK trial demonstrated selenium's positive effects on the immune system.

Yet the first mainstream food to be marketed for its high selenium content has been pulled from store shelves this week after disappointing sales.

The selenium-enriched bread, available in upmarket British retailer Waitrose, was launched in February this year and initially generated good press coverage. But a Waitrose spokesperson said that "it hasn't sold well enough to stay on the shelf".

The firm behind the product, agritechnologist group Nutrilaw, blame a lack of consumer awareness of the role of selenium in health.

"Consumer awareness is very, very low,"​ manager Mark Law told

This is probably why few companies have followed Nutrilaw's move. A search in Mintel's Global New Products Database (GNPD​) shows that, excluding babyfood, only 10 products launched by August this year contained selenium, and the Waitrose bread was the only one to highlight selenium in its product name.

The number has not grown on last year's new products. Again, only one product launched in 2004 referred to selenium in its front packaging - Vitale Cappuccino Koenzyme Q10 + Selenium, made by Polish cappuccino firm Mokate.

Nor is the lack of definitive research holding back industry from marketing the nutrient, according to Dr Margaret Rayman, a selenium expert based at the University of Surrey in the UK.

She suggests that because selenium has been around for a long time, and cannot be patented, companies are not interested in it. The mineral is most commonly derived from the copper smelting industry, for which it is a byproduct.

Yet Dr Rayman believes that there could be a need for increasing levels of the mineral in our diet.

There is promising evidence to suggest that selenium may play a role in prostate cancer prevention and also in lung cancer, and the role in the immune system is well-established, she says. Studies have also shown selenium to stop viruses from mutating.

"With selenium there are very real claims that are backed up by evidence,"​ she added. "I think the government should be looking into using fertilisers and looking at different soil types."

The situation is very different in the supplements market where a significant number of selenium products are available, both in combination with other nutrients and alone. This suggests that there is potential for food makers if they can improve consumer understanding of the mineral's benefits.

Solgar has five different selenium products in its range, and has a long tradition with this mineral, thanks to the work of one of its researchers in the 70s, Dr Richard Passwater. His research on selenium contributed to the recognition of that element as an essential part of the RDA adopted in 1989.

Marie Kendall, marketing manager of Solgar in the UK, said: "We wouldn't keep these products in the range if there wasn't demand for them."

But she added: "We market ourselves through independent health food stores so the people coming in are very educated and they are often advised by registered practitioners running the stores."

"Your average supermarket doesn't have shop staff giving out his kind of information,"​ she said.

Datasource : Mintel's Global New Products Database​.

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