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A radical approach to measuring and communicating health effects

21 October 2017 - Empowering the food industry to provide healthy nutrition, tailored to the individual needs of people across their life span, is the driving force behind TiFN’s research within the Nutrition and Health theme. “We are developing a radical approach to measuring and communicating health effects”, says Theme Director Rob Beudeker.

Around the world, obesity continues to increase, yet many people have poor diets: too much fat, sugar and salt; too little fibre, vitamins and minerals. To date, efforts by government, industry and society to reduce obesity have had minimal impact. Nutrition and lifestyle intervention campaigns attract just a few consumers, and food manufacturers find it almost impossible to get health claims approved, for example for probiotics to support gut health. “What, why, how and when people eat, depends on many different factors, such as age, lifestyle and socio-economic status. This makes food-consumption behaviour difficult to predict”, explains Beudeker.

Long-term effects
Moreover, nutrients often have various, minor, long-term health effects that result from interaction with other ingredients present in a food or diet, and these can differ between people. “For this reason, randomised, controlled trials - mandatory in healthclaim applications - often show no effects”, he says. “And when they do have a measurable effect it is seen in only around twenty per cent of the population.”

Yet another disadvantage is that nutritional health effects can take a long time to manifest. “That we need to change consumer behaviour is clear. But who is likely to respond to a message such as reduce your sugar intake now and avoid the chance of getting diabetes in twenty years?”, illustrates the Theme Director. The good news is that, thanks to rapid developments in technologies such as sensors and wearables, it will soon be possible to measure the direct effects of nutrition - reliably, quickly and non-invasively. “This will enable consumers to adapt their nutrition to their needs”, says Beudeker.

Comprehensive and personalised
TiFN’s Nutrition and Health research continuously anticipates such developments, using a comprehensive yet personalised focus. The multidisciplinary scientific structure of the programmes within this field, allows for addressing diet quality on the one hand, and the individual, whole-life needs of people on the other.

The first programme, Nutrient balance and attractive foods, will develop a methodology to make healthy choices easier and improve consumer appreciation, based on the Nutrient Balance Concept - a new metric that reflects the overall nutritional quality of foodstuffs, diets and meal plans. “Representatives of both academia and industry have long been calling for such an approach”, explains Beudeker. “You can imagine it as a nutritional lingua franca, facilitating communication between manufacturers and consumers, and making the healthy choice the easy choice.”

The second programme, Nutritional impact on specific health aspects, has been established to obtain, amongst other goals, more understanding of the link between microbiota composition and biomarkers related to immune and mucosal health, at all age points. “This will increase the chance of health claims being approved and provide leads for optimising agespecific gut-health interventions”, says the Theme Director.

The third, Effective nutrition for you is dedicated to the development of effective, personalised coaching in nutrition and lifestyle. “The research will increase our understanding of individual responses to changes in diet and lifestyle, and provide insight into what motivates consumers to make and sustain healthy changes”, says Beudeker. “An important target is glucose metabolism, extensively studied in earlier TiFN research. The programme is also developing new research methodologies, focussed on assessing individual time series as an alternative to conventional, randomised, controlled trials.”

People, profit, planet
In order to be really successful, TiFN’s industrial partners must educate people about appropriate aspects of diet and lifestyle. Then, as consumers, people can make the right choices, instore or online, from both a health and a sustainability point of few. Industry can only make continued profits if they demonstrate that they care about the people consuming their products, and the impact their products have on the planet. Beudeker: “We will provide sound data that ensures industry gets more business opportunities, whether by communicating about healthy diets, personalised nutrition, or specific health aspects such as beneficial gut bacteria, and be in a position to take early advantage of emerging markets, trends and technologies.”