Co-ordinated by Dr Francesco Branca at the Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca per gli Alimenti e la Nutrizione (INRAN) in Rome, the pan-European project called 'Phytohealth' brings together scientists, nutritionists, clinicians, as well as large and small companies involved in the field of phytoestogens from 11 countries - Austria, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.
According to the researchers, the project has a double focus, consumers and producers. "Results from different investigations into phytoestrogens will be used to understand consumers' perspectives and needs. Available data will also be compiled to explore opportunities for product development from improved raw materials," report the scientists.
Evidence to suggest that isoflavones, plant oestrogens, could reduce the risk of breast has been conflicting. This latest European project will seek to analyse all the available science on this subject in a bid to have a clearer idea of the potential benefits to health.
Plant compounds, found in large quantities in soyfoods, have also been attributed to the lower rates of breast cancer among women in Asia. However not all trials have proved the link between soy intake and lower breast cancer risk. This association is also difficult to measure in Western populations where women do not tend to consume much soy-based produce.
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in women (after lung cancer) and is the most common cancer among women, excluding nonmelanoma skin cancers. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1.2 million people will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year worldwide.
The EU project, started in late 2003, will organise three plenary meetings and three platform meetings (the latter targeted to consumers, producers and researchers). The second plenary meeting will be held in Heraklion, Greece in October 2004.
In June this year the European Commission said it had earmarked €192 million for food quality and safety research in the second year of the EU's Sixth Framework Programme for Research 2002-2006.
The funds are tipped to go to 31 research projects and "networks of excellence" and 13 smaller support actions to tackle issues such as traceability, contaminants in food, emerging pathogens, diseases affecting animals and crops, food allergy, obesity and various aspects of nutrition.