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Food, nutrition and health

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The connections between our foods, the nutrients they provide and our health are complex, but have far-reaching consequences for individuals and society. As changing diets and dietary habits place an increasing burden on healthcare systems, it is crucial that we develop new products, interventions and refined guidelines which will improve health through diet. Achieving this will depend upon a complete understanding of the biological processes which connect the foods we eat to our long-term health.

The importance of nutrition for health and society

Eating a well-balanced diet, with adequate nutrients and appropriate calories, is a fundamental requirement for continued health. An appropriate diet contributes to healthy development, healthy ageing and greater resilience against disease. Similarly, a poor or inappropriate diet places people at greater risk of infection and a range of chronic illnesses – including cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Despite the clear connections between nutrition and health, more than half of the UK population are obese or overweight, consumption of fruit and vegetables is falling and the calorie density of the average shopping basket is increasing. Meanwhile, around three million people in the UK are malnourished, including 25% of those in hospital and 42% in long-term care.

This represents a serious economic and social challenge. High body mass index is one of the leading risk factors for chronic disease in the UK, accounting for 9% (£5.1Bn per year) of NHS spend. The cost to the wider economy is vast at around £16Bn per year, rising to £50Bn by 2050 if action is not taken. As costs escalate, the need for new products and interventions to promote health through our diets is becoming ever more urgent.

Research to improve health through nutrition

There is enormous potential to develop new or improved products, health interventions and more accurate dietary guidelines which will improve health through nutrition. However, fully realising this potential will require a complete understanding of exactly how our food influences our health.

Although it is clear that nutrition and health are intimately connected, precisely how the biological connections work is often unclear. Large population analyses can identify a correlation between a particular food or diet and a particular health outcome, but without knowing the mechanism which links the two we cannot be sure that the effect is real – and we cannot use this knowledge to refine dietary advice or develop new products. Current uncertainty about the health consequences of different types of sugars and fat demonstrates that our understanding of what constitutes a “healthy” diet is far from complete.

New scientific techniques are providing opportunities to develop a much more complete understanding of how we choose our foods, exactly what effects different foods and nutrients have on our bodies, how they interact and what the long term consequences for our health might be. By really getting to grips with the biological mechanisms at work, we can develop confident and accurate dietary advice which is tailored to different population groups, and nutritional interventions which will improve the health of at risk-individuals. Fully understanding the quantities and combinations of nutrients and diets which will best improve health means that new products and food processing techniques can be developed to make our diets healthier.

How BBSRC are involved

We invest £10-15M per year on research directly related to human nutrition and health. One of our key aims is to fund research which uses the latest techniques and technologies from across bioscience to conclusively answer the fundamental questions about relationships between food, nutrition and health. In order to achieve this we expect to support researchers in the other areas which we fund – for example immunology, neuroscience and microbiology – to apply their expertise to nutritional questions. Furthermore, we are working closely with industry to identify new interdisciplinary challenges and mechanisms by which we can facilitate innovation across the food sector.

BBSRC provides funding which helps to ensure that advances in our scientific understanding translate into benefits for society and for the economy. Together with our Research Council partners at MRC, ESRC and EPSRC, we have brought together 14 food and drink companies to support research through the Diet and Health Research Industry Club (DRINC). DRINC supports research which will enable the food and drink industry to develop products with enhanced health benefits for consumers.

We fund research at universities across the UK, but also support a research institute dedicated to understanding food and health (the Quadram Institute). Together with the Quadram Institute, the University of East Anglia and the North Norfolk University Hospital Trust, we are developing plans for a new, national research centre to meet the pressing challenge of maintaining good health through a good diet.

Some BBSRC-funded research projects in this area

Case study

Many people are aware of government guidelines for a well-balanced diet: to eat plenty of wholegrain foods, fruit and vegetables. But with busy lifestyles often prioritising convenience over health, the search is on for new food products that can deliver the same health benefits.

Research at Newcastle University has found that a seaweed extract added to bread not only boosts the dietary fibre content but could even aid weight loss.

Jolanta Kisielewska, a Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship awardee of the Royal Society eating alginate bread. Tim Gander
Jolanta Kisielewska, a Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow eating alginate bread. Copyright: Tim Gander

For a number of years Professor Jeffrey Pearson's team have been studying the capacity of dietary fibre to help people feel fuller for longer. In particular they've been looking at alginates in seaweed, which are already a common ingredient as a fat replacement in many processed foods.

Interestingly, they have shown that adding alginates to foods may also offer a way to keep the fat content of foods the same and still lose weight.

Have your cake and eat it

Following on from a previous study which showed that some alginates can inhibit the action of pancreatic lipase so that less fat is digested, Pearson's team have developed an alginate bread, which they tested in a model gut system that mimicked the chewing, gastric and intestinal processes.

In this latest study, supported by the Diet and Health Research Industry Club (a partnership led by BBSRC with the Medical Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and 13 industry members), Pearson's team have shown that alginate is released from the bread in the intestinal phase where lipase is most active.

Dr Matthew Wilcox testing alginate digestion in the Newcastle team’s model gut system. Tim Gander
Dr Matthew Wilcox testing alginate digestion in the Newcastle team’s model gut system. Copyright: Tim Gander

What's more, in a subsequent acceptability study, using bread supplied by Greggs the baker, they demonstrated that alginates had no adverse effects on people, such as those associated with some weight management products currently on the market.

"We've found that not only do people not mind the taste of the alginate bread compared to ordinary bread they prefer it. This is very encouraging as we look to further develop alginate food products, building on the links that we have forged with industry," says Professor Pearson.