Rapid developments in science and technology mean that our understanding of the link between nutrition and health continues to grow. These advances may help to prevent non-communicable diseases and conditions such as obesity, diabetes and cardio-vascular diseases later in life. At a global level, the sustainable provision of nutritious food to the growing population of the planet is a striking challenge. This session focused on developments and challenges facing nutrition experts and options for addressing threats to the food supply and health.
Nutrition in the 21st century
Tom Sanders, of King’s College London, framed the debate by identifying three key areas – an ageing population; an increase in obesity particularly among the young, causing massive rises in diabetes cases across Europe; and climate change – that will shape the way nutritionists work in the coming decades. Variations across countries – for example, the populations of India and China are growing much faster than those of European countries – would further complicate attempts to develop global strategies. New technologies could be a double-edged sword, he said: they could help in furthering understanding of nutrition issues, but also contribute to sedentary lifestyles.
Metabolic programming: Implications for feeding infants and children
Mary Fewtrell of the Institute of Child Health at University College London, answered the question “What is metabolic programming?” by taking a detailed look at advances in nutritional programming in humans and the implications for practitioners. Programing stimuli can be endogenous (related to hormones) or environmental (related to temperature, light, contaminants and so on), she explained. The crucial point to understand is that exposure to these stimuli at critical development points – e.g. as foetuses or infants – can lead to long-term, permanent effects in humans.
Personalised nutrition for the gut microbiome: feed it, change it, swap it?
There are up to 1,000 microbes in the human gut, which affect human health by interacting with other factors such as diet, explained Kieran Tuohy of the Fondazione Edward Munch in Italy. Microbiota – the “community” of microorganisms that live in the digestive tracts of humans – is an organ in its own right and humans are its ecosystem, he said. Obese people have different microbiota in their guts, and when diet changes so does the make-up of the microbiota. If we can get the food right for the microorganisms in our gut, we might be able to improve our own nutrition, he said.
Klaus Riediger, of the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety, outlined the different definitions of novel foods and explained the system that is in place for evaluating novel foods in Europe. He highlighted some of the significant developments in this growing sector, including foods isolated from plants such as chia seed – which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids – and rapeseed protein, whilst pointing out that novel foods have been with us for some time – think of barley coffee and maize germ oil. Mr Riediger went on to explain that the new regulation about to come into force in Europe included a common authorisation procedure, encompassing nanotechnology, whole animals (insects), cloning, and in vitro meat.
Under-used food sources of key nutrients
Although over-consumption of animal-based protein is responsible for negative health outcomes such as obesity and cardiovascular disease, a lack of animal-based protein is associated with malnutrition. So what under-used sources are available to humans? That was the question addressed by Nanna Roos of the University of Copenhagen. Fish and seafood from growth in aquaculture can be mass-produced and contribute significantly to key ingredients, she explained, using examples such as Bangladesh, where many indigenous species have been harnessed and brought into aquaculture systems. Insects represent another area of great potential, but consumption is largely determined by cultural attitudes, she added.
Nutrition Challenges Ahead: Using agro-biodiversity for healthier diets within sustainable food systems
We face a nutritional “trilemma”, said Gina Kennedy from Bioversity International in Italy: 805 million people are food insecure; obesity now affects 2.1 billion people; and about 2 billion suffer from micronutrient deficiency. Dr Kennedy drew a direct link between these problems and modern methods of food production, pointing out that biodiversity has shrunk to the point where 12 crops and five animal species provide 75% of the world’s food today. She suggested that sustainable food production could help to combat pests and diseases, improve nutrition, boost ecosystems, and generate new livelihood opportunities.