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Six new innovation hubs in UK to explore interaction between diet and health

Six new innovation hubs in UK to explore interaction between diet and health

Coordinated by the British Nutrition Foundation, which ensures communication between its six hubs, the Diet and Health Open Innovation Research Club (OIRC) will bring together experts in behaviour, nutrition and food science to collaborate on new research on health and diet. The information will be disseminated to other countries around the world through interactions with the global research community, with the hope of impacting health everywhere, not just in the United Kingdom.

With funding from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), alongside the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Innovate UK and the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Diet and Health OIRC will encourage collaborations between not only academics and industry but also policymakers, to help them identify areas in which innovation is needed.   

Real-life benefits for the public, for example, reformulated products, new functional foods or new approaches packaging and labelling foods are key to the work of the OIRC innovation hubs​,” Bridget Benelam, Nutrition Scientist for British Nutrition Foundation, told FoodNavigator.

As the results from the projects emerge, these will be published in the public domain and updates will be shared as the work progresses, both by the British Nutrition Foundation and the innovation hubs themselves​.”

Industry and academic collaboration is vital for the project, with some key industry leaders taking part, and the list only growing. “Work is ongoing to evaluate research proposals and build membership of the innovation hubs​,” Benelam told us.

Collaboration between academia and industry is key to the work of the OIRC, for example, PepsiCo is a representative for the RIPEN hub, along with senior academics from Imperial College London and the University of Surrey.

Those involved in the food chain, whether from large multinationals or micro SMEs, are urged to sign up and join the relevant hubs to make their voice heard and for the opportunity to take part in the latest research​.”

Global crisis

Globally, there are many health problems linked to diet and nutrition. Poor diets are a leading cause of risk factors associated with diseases around the world, including cardiovascular diseases which are the leading cause of death globally.

Thirty-one percent of people are affected by hypertension and 69% of women of reproductive age are affected by at least one macronutrient deficiency. Thirty-nine percent of people globally are either underweight or living with obesity.

Undernutrition is also the cause of nearly half of all child deaths under the age of five, and of those it doesn’t kill, it prevents from achieving social, economic, occupational and educational potential.

Alongside this, with a growing population that could reach 9.7 billion by 2064 (according to the UN), these problems will become even more acute in the coming decades.

The Diet and Health OIRC will present platforms for industry professionals (from fields such as retail, food production and agriculture), academics and policymakers to collaborate to address this global crisis, striving to fix dietary issues not just in the UK but around the world.

Funding innovation

The hubs will aim to address nutritional problems by focusing on a number of key areas.

The first of these is how the physiological affect of food can lead to obesity. In order to create products that will lead to healthier and less obesogenic choices, investment in innovation is needed, and this is where the Diet and Health OIRC comes in.

By helping industry understand the key questions in the physiological response to food (such as the way ultra-processed foods affect people), the innovation hubs provide valuable scientific backing to product innovation, rather than relying on industry alone to solve the problem.

The interplay between food and physiology can lead to problems as diverse as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cancer and low bone density. The RIPEN Hub, in collaboration with Imperial College London, University of Surrey, PepsiCo and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), will explore this.

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The Biofortification hub explores the process of improving the micronutrients in crops. Image Source: Justin Paget/Getty Images

Another hub, the Biofortification Hub, explores how to improve biofortification. Biofortification is the process of increasing a crop’s micronutrient content through a combination of breeding, enriched fertilizers and genetic modification.

The Hub is, once again, a collaboration of experts in soil health, crop genetics, human health and food innovation with industry professionals across the biofortification supply chain, who will collaborate to strengthen the UK’s biofortification research and identify areas where research is most important.

Beyond nutritional value, the food environment that consumers live in is of vital importance to their health: changes in food packaging, processing, labelling and many more things can affect how consumers perceive products and which products they eventually buy.

The Consumer Hub uses an interdisciplinary team from across industry and academia to explore consumer food choices. The Hub’s goal is to see how academic research on consumers works in the real world, amongst different sample groups than simply university students.

They will use new methods of data capture, such as covert digital image capture and wearable monitoring devices, to assess consumers. They will also utilise supermarket loyalty card data combined with direct observation to assess consumer buying habits.

At its heart, though, the hub focuses on people in food insecurity and the research will focus particularly on marginalised and hard-to-reach communities, exploring their needs most of all.

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The Consumer Hub explores consumer behaviour. Image Source: Smile/Getty Images

Research in the gut microbiota and functional foods that target it is growing. The INFORM Hub will explore how probiotics, prebiotics and plant stanols can all affect the gut microbiota positively.

It will explore the abilities of functional foods in a range of areas, from mood and stress to health and disease to even sports science, aiming to optimise recovery from disease, sports performance and mental wellbeing through these foods.

Nutrition is important in contributing to our growth and development, from the earliest years of childhood to the twilight years of our lives. Looking at how to develop as children and how we age, the i-Nutrilife hub explores the full breadth of nutrition in human life. Working to understand how to change biological and physiological processes through food, the hub will work with other hubs to incorporate elements of consumer behaviour, functional foods and biofortification in its research.

Finally, the STAR hub looks at improving plant-based foods and products, with a particular look at polyphenols, fibre and resistant starch. It aims to provide plant-based products and systems specifically targeted at and tailored to different points in consumers’ lives. The i-Nutrilife and STAR hubs are united through the shared goal of ‘understanding how food and beverages deliver improved nutrition across the life-course.’

Diet-related diseases are the major killers around the world and nutrition research has provided invaluable evidence to help us understand how what we eat and drink affects our health​,” said Sara Stanner, Science Director at the British Nutrition Foundation.

But to make a real impact this research must be translated into healthier and more sustainable products and improved nutrition. We’re incredibly excited to be asked to help bring together some of the top researchers in nutrition science and related fields with partners from industry to drive innovation.

Collaborative working can influence the food chain from agriculture to products on shelves in order to unlock real-life benefits for people’s health and wellbeing​”.

OIRC represents an investment of almost £15 million, created to help address critical shared barriers to innovation across the food and drink sector,” ​added Dr Ruth Nottingham, Head of Business Engagement and Intelligence from the BBSRC.

The six innovation hubs will bring together world-class leaders from academia, industry and wider stakeholders to address these barriers. The coordination by the British Nutrition Foundation will enhance connectivity across the innovation hubs and ensure the findings are shared across the food system​”.

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