China target: Metabolic, gut, immune and infant health key priorities in next stage of Kiwi science challenge

By Cheryl Tay contact

- Last updated on GMT

The challenge consists of academics collaborating to explore different areas of research based on consumer insights, to better aid industry in catering to consumer demand for health and nutrition products.
The challenge consists of academics collaborating to explore different areas of research based on consumer insights, to better aid industry in catering to consumer demand for health and nutrition products.

Related tags: China, New zealand, Research

The second phase of New Zealand's High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge will see a significant portion of its work focused on China, alongside New Zealand and Singapore.

The challenge's researchers will embark on human clinical studies involving dietary interventions in the challenge's four main areas of research — metabolic, digestive, immune and infant health — between 2019 and 2024.

The first phase, which spanned 2014 to 2019, saw the researchers and their industry partners develop new methodologies and biomarkers to support the health benefits of foods in specific areas like type 2 diabetes and functional gut disorders.

The second phase will lend support from partnerships between Chinese and Kiwi agencies and researchers, which were reaffirmed by the recent Memorandum of Arrangement between the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and New Zealand's Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), signed on April 1.

The challenge — which has so far invested over NZ$20m in research — consists of academics from several Kiwi universities and Crown Research Institutes collaborating to explore different areas of research based on consumer insights, in order to better aid industry in catering to consumer demand for health and nutrition products.

Bringing the challenge to China

Speaking to NutraIngredients-Asia​, Dr Olivier Gasser, team leader at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, said: "The first phase helped us lay down all the groundwork that was necessary to begin what we are doing now.

"We plan to start clinical work in China on metabolic health, as well as gut health in Singapore, and we are looking to collaborate with local organisations to get things going. A lot of our work involves identifying bioactives in whole foods and how such foods are applicable to a particular population.

"In China, we are focusing on lung health, and exploring the association between metabolic health and air pollution. Based on preliminary research, we know Chinese consumers are very much concerned with air pollution and diabetes."

He explained that there had been emerging research on the link between a polluted living environment and a higher likelihood of developing diabetes or other metabolic health problems.

As such, his team will investigate the progression of lung inflammation caused by air pollution, as well as how this could affect the rest of the body and lead to the onset of metabolic disease.

He further said that this would act as a starting point for the challenge to expand its research to address other health issues in China.

"We want to find foods that have multiple health benefits and by 2024, we hope to have helped industry develop what it needs to address all the health issues present in the Chinese population, whether it's obesity, diabetes, lung inflammation or something else."

However, he also acknowledged that in light of increasingly strict regulations in the country, delays in getting new health products to market were likely to occur.

"The clear target for us is China, but we understand the risk in targeting only China. It is by far the largest export market for the New Zealand industry, but we are also aware of the regulatory hurdles, so we are trying to diversify the challenge by also going into other countries.

“That's one of the main reasons we've chosen Singapore — it makes sense as there are many ethnic Chinese and Chinese nationals there, and we already have a good relationship with many of the local universities and research institutes."

He added that for the time being, the challenge's immune and infant health work would remain centred on New Zealand.

Gasser was speaking to NutraIngredients-Asia​ just after Foodomics 2019, which was hosted by the challenge's University of Auckland team and funded by the MBIE.

The event saw researchers and industry stakeholders gather to discuss how Kiwi science and innovation could help advance the development of health foods to benefit local companies and consumers, as well as to increase export revenue in the sector.

Keynote speakers at the event included Prof Rob Knight from UC San Diego, Julian Mellentin of New Nutrition Business, Prof Nicholas Talley from the University of Newcastle and Dr Jim Kaput of Vydiant Inc.

The nutritional 'black box'

One of the key goals for the research conducted during challenge's second phase, Gasser said, was helping companies maximise the potential of their capabilities to address different health issues and demographics.

He said it was not enough to recommend certain diets or products to consumers, as the mechanisms and results of those diets would be contained in what he referred to as the nutritional equivalent of a 'black box'.

"Sometimes, the health benefits of a particular food could come from its vitamins and minerals. Other times, they may require the microbiome to manifest, relying on absorption and metabolism in the microbiome to be effective.

"That's why we are taking a systemic approach to everything — the microbiome, its metabolites, metabolic health markers, bioactive ingredients — so we can figure out the data in this 'black box' and gain a mechanistic understanding of how the human body works, and how dietary intervention can modulate various aspects of human physiology."

Maximising potential

Gasser also said that in addition to developing new products to meet demand, health food and supplement companies in New Zealand needed to further explore the potential of their existing ingredients and products.

"Companies need to be resourceful. The science around food is emerging, and new biomarkers can be developed for certain diseases. We have invited industry to engage with us more regularly so they can maximise the potential of their products.

"For instance, there may be a product that's good for immune health, but it may also have other health benefits the company itself is not yet aware of that could allow it to be marketed to a wider demographic.

"Ideally, we would provide the food and supplement industry with the science it needs to support its products and get them to consumers who need them. But it's also about finding new food and identifying new bioactive ingredients in them that can benefit consumers and add value to the industry.

Ultimately, Gasser said, it was important to maintain and increase the Chinese preference for Kiwi-made health foods and supplements by following up new product launches with scientific evidence of their efficacy.

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