In Europe around 700 million mouths are fed every day, and those mouths are picky. Not only do we want safe, cheap and varied meals, but they have to be tasty and preferably quick to serve in our fast-paced world. Tasty food, however, is often fatty and sugary. This, coupled with evermore sedentary lifestyles, means that more than half of Europeans are overweight, and more than 20% are obese, according to the World Health Organization.
Weight management is all about balancing calories consumed with calories burned, and clearly many of us could exercise more to tip the scales in our favour. But concentrating on physical activity alone misses half the picture. Although many consumers now choose lean meat, vegetables and other foods high in dietary fibres to keep trim, a 2015 report by FoodDrinkEurope found that what we crave most from our food is pleasure, which is what drives the €2.8 billion spent annually on R&D in the European food sector.
So how can we reconcile the trend towards pleasurable foods with the need for healthy, nutritious diets? Do we simply make healthy foods more pleasurable, and pleasurable “naughty” treats more healthy? As with most things in life, the real solution to smart eating is more complicated, involving cutting-edge research from Europe’s top scientists.
The proof is in the milk
Take milk as an example. For decades governments worldwide have promoted its health benefits. Unless you were lactose intolerant, milk was good for you whatever your age, size, shape or background. But where was the evidence?
Completed in 2012, NutriChip was a Swiss research project that sought to prove this fact once and for all. It was conducted by a multidisciplinary team led by Martin Gijs of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Agroscope, the Swiss centre for agricultural research.
Despite its simple aim, NutriChip was an ambitious project, requiring the researchers to grow a layer of cells on a membrane within a novel device. Mimicking the cell layer in the intestines through which food is transported into the bloodstream, NutriChip essentially created one of the world’s first “guts-on-a-chip”.
However, while technologically groundbreaking – inspiring others to aim for multiple organs on a chip, called “human-on-a-chip” – the results from the study did not match those on humans. Fascinatingly, Gijs and his team instead uncovered fundamental limitations in the organ-on-a-chip approach: “It’s a very vulnerable model that doesn’t have the regenerational capabilities of a true biological system, so if you’re too aggressive with these cells they will simply die, limiting their use.”
Far from downhearted, Gijs is now taking a different approach he believes holds more promise: “I’m now interested in using animals-on-a-chip,” he says. With the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, instead of working “with very simplified models”, Gijs has complete biological systems with intestines at his disposal. “We can culture them on a chip, give them different foods, drugs or chemical compounds and see how they react,” he says.
Even better, because C. elegans is transparent and many mutants and disease models exist in it, Gijs can study these creatures in vivo and watch, for example, how fluorescence develops in the organ of interest. Perhaps this animal-on-a-chip approach will even one day illuminate milk’s enigmatic beneficial effects.
Chicken or beef tonight?
Another accepted truth is that chicken is healthier than beef. Not always, according to mouse model studies, which suggest that some mice gain more weight from chicken than from beef. In fact, similar investigations have been conducted showing that two people following the exact same diet can end up with wildly contrasting health outcomes. It all boils down to genes, with the rapidly evolving field of nutrigenomics offering unprecedented insights into how diets affect different people in different ways. At the forefront of this field is Peter Løngreen of the Centre for Biological Sequence Analysis at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU).
“Over the past few years we’ve been working on analysing people’s genomes and making recommendations as to the types of foods they should eat according to their genetic makeup,” he explains.
With the benefit of Denmark’s life-science supercomputing facilities, the DTU team is moving into large-scale population sequencing, offering reference data to improve individual dietary advice.
The main roadblock to nutrigenomics and personalised diet innovation is politics. “Official nutrition advice has the tendency to treat everyone equally,” says Løngreen. “If you imagine, for example, that your genotype allows you to handle beef better than chicken, then it’s clear that official advice needs to be graduated and more granular depending on your pheno- and genotype, to provide much more dynamic recommendations on how and what to eat.”
An app a day keeps the doctor away
Dietary advice is all well and good, of course, but it is useless if it fails to reach the people who most need it. “From a scientific perspective we know a lot about balanced diets and their effects on health, but in daily life it’s hard to follow recommendations,” says Christina Holzapfel, a nutritional scientist at the Technical University of Munich. “And it’s difficult to reach specific target groups, especially lower-income families.”
Holzapfel is leading two nutritional communication projects within the Enable cluster, which aims to develop new strategies that promote healthier food choices from birth to old age. In the first, her team is devising a digital learning game to improve knowledge and eating behaviour in adolescents and young adults. In the other, the team is creating a mobile application called APPetite to see if people’s eating habits improve if they publish and evaluate meals photos on a social network.
“Apps like APPetite cannot replace professional obesity therapy, but they do represent an additional tool to supervise weight management,” says Holzapfel. So far, clinical studies have produced only limited evidence on whether apps improve weight management, but APPetite and similar apps will hopefully fill the gap.
Much like the work of Gijs and Løngreen, Holzapfel’s studies show there is a lot still to learn about how best to eat smart – but also how European innovators are leading the way to healthier diets for generations to come.
Smart solutions for a better eating experience
Openfood.ch is a catalogue of 14,000 items from Swiss grocery shelves. Developed by EPFL, it allows consumers to scan products with their smartphones and obtain information on the ingredients, such as the amount of sugar and fat. The project hopes to create greater awareness of what people eat and drink.
FutureFood, a Dutch project, wants to commercialise an innovative way of preserving the freshness of dried foods like vegetables, herbs and fruit. Their pressurised CO2 not only dehydrates food, conserving quality and health benefits, but also uses less energy than other methods.
Koen Nickmans, a PhD candidate at Eindhoven University of Technology, and Marios Chryssolouris, a consultant at Ernst & Young, created Fresh Strips, a material label that changes colour to indicate whether foods or medical supplies have been exposed to excessively high temperatures and can still be consumed or used. They won the prestigious Merck Displaying Futures Award last September.