Baby food is at the center of attention in the search for more safety and quality

By DANIEL DE LORENZO

If we are what we eat, as the saying goes, the quality of food is fundamental to our health. And as food production and trade increases in response to increased global demand, safety and quality controls have become even more vital.

The impact of diet on health is hard to overstate. Obesity worldwide has nearly tripled since 1975, and in Europe it affects almost 60% of adults and nearly one in three children. Diabetes is also on the rise, and Europe has a markedly high number of children with type 1 – 295,000 in 2021.

quality controls

Eating a varied and healthy diet can improve overall well-being and reduce the risk of long-term disease. In addition, consumers are demanding greater transparency in the food chain following incidents of food fraud such as the 2008 contamination of infant formula with melamine, the discovery of fipronil in eggs in 2017 and sporadic outbreaks of salmonella.

“Food safety systems in Europe are generally effective, but we believe there is room for further improvement in safety and quality levels,” said Dr. Erwan Engel, director of research at the French National Institute of Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE).

Engel coordinates the EU-funded SAFFI project, which brings together leading research organizations and baby food producers in Europe and China. With babies, children and young people more vulnerable and in need of quality food to grow, the project is looking for ways to ensure greater safety in production.

In addition to breast milk, infant formulas and baby foods are the most important part of a child’s diet in the first year of life. Preventing microbial or chemical contamination in the processing chain is a priority.

60 million mouths

SAFFI is treating food for 15 million children in the EU and 45 million children under three in China. The partners are focusing on four popular infant food lines: formula, sterilized mixed vegetables with meat or fish, infant cereals and fruit purees.

The project carried out tests at the facilities of five participating international baby food companies – FrieslandCampina, based in the Netherlands, HiPP in Germany, Greek producer YIOTIS and two Chinese companies, Beingmate and YFFC.

The objective is to identify the main risks of microbial hazards, including bacteria, and potential chemical contaminants in the food chain.

Chemical contaminants include environmental pollutants such as dioxins or lead, crop treatment residues such as pesticides, and substances generated during processing including furan.

“We need to convince the industry that it’s important to focus on chemicals as well,” Engel said. ‘Although the health effects are not as immediate as they are for microbes, they can still be significant in the long term.’

SAFFI also aims to help food producers and authorities anticipate where potential problems may arise and, as a result, reduce the threat of contamination at all stages of production.

Classic processes based on heat treatments, for example, can be replaced by pulsed combustion dryers, radio frequency heating and high pressure processing, which are better at sterilizing food while maintaining the optimal nutritional value of fresh products.

“We verified the effectiveness of these innovative processing technologies to control the growth, inhibition and inactivation of pathogens, as well as their ability to slow food degradation and limit the integration of certain chemicals,” said Engel.

healthy exchange

The food and drink sector, which includes baby food, is a major contributor to the EU economy, with exports of €110 billion in 2019. By investing in training and sharing know-how, SAFFI will help to improve safety standards in the EU and China and reduce potential barriers to trade.

It will cooperate with other research projects under the EU-China Core Initiative for Food, Agriculture and Biotechnology (FAB), all of which aim for continuous improvement in food safety control.

Such cooperation can increase EU-China trade and give European food companies greater opportunities to expand in the international market. Furthermore, the standards set by SAFFI in the infant food sector can be extended to other food categories, according to Engel.

Tailored diets

When it comes to health, variety and quality of food also count. A balanced diet can help prevent disease from developing in the first place. It can also allow people with serious illnesses to heal and live more stable lives.

However, people respond differently to the same foods or nutrients depending on genetic and lifestyle factors. This includes stress, exercise levels, individual microbiome composition, and exposure to environmental toxins.

The EU-funded NUTRISHIELD project aims to create personalized diets tailored to individual biomarkers, with a particular focus on children with obesity and/or diabetes and breastfeeding mothers.

The project is looking at a range of biomarkers related to nutrition and health disorders, taking into account how each child responds to different nutrients and types of food.

NUTRISHIELD involves research and clinical partners from across Europe. The project is coordinated by a Swiss company called Alpes Lasers, which has developed specialized mid-infrared laser technology for use in clinical settings.

laser sharp

“Unlike current processes used to analyze body fluids, laser technology can work with very small urine samples – a necessity when small patients can only produce minute amounts,” said Miltos Vasileiadis, business developer and project manager at Laser Alps.

The company provided project partners with laser technology used to build urine, breath and human milk analyzers. Samples collected are analyzed at the molecular level, allowing nutritionists to provide detailed, personalized and easy-to-follow advice.

This can include how much of each food group an individual needs and how often, how much exercise and sleep is needed, and even what specific variety of fruit or grain is needed for proper nutrition.

A study of young patients with diabetes is being carried out at Hospital San Raffaele in Milan, Italy, while the Health Research Institute Hospital La Fe in Valencia, Spain is working with breastfeeding mothers and newborns. Studies carried out at Radboud University, in the Netherlands, aim to understand how nutrition can help and enhance cognitive development in children.

The tools developed by NUTRISHIELD are designed to be portable and easy to use, making biomarker analysis faster and more cost-effective. In the long term, they could be used in different medical settings to serve patients of any age.

FOOD 2030

The EU’s FOOD 2030 research and innovation policy aims to transform food systems and ensure everyone has enough, nutritious and safe food to live a healthy life.

The initiative spans the entire food system, linking primary production sectors (such as agriculture and fisheries) with food processing, retail and distribution, packaging, waste and recycling, foodservice and consumption.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizonthe EU Research and Innovation Magazine.

Baby food is at the center of attention in the search for more safety and quality

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