By DANIEL DE LORENZO
If we are what we eat, as the saying goes, the quality of food is essential to our health. And as food production and trade increase in response to increased global demand, safety and quality controls have become even more vital.
The impact of diet on health is difficult to overestimate. Worldwide obesity has almost tripled since 1975 and, in Europe, affects nearly 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.
A varied and healthy diet can improve overall well-being and reduce the risk of long-term disease. Additionally, consumers are demanding greater transparency in the food chain following incidents of food fraud such as the melamine contamination of baby formula in 2008, 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, research director 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 infant food producers from Europe and China. As babies, children and young people are more vulnerable and need high quality food to grow, the project is exploring ways to ensure greater safety in production.
Besides breast milk, infant formula and baby food are the most important part of a child’s diet during the first year of life. Preventing microbial or chemical contamination in the processing chain is a priority.
60 million mouths
SAFFI feeds 15 million children in the EU and 45 million children under the age of three in China. The partners focus on four popular infant food lines: infant formula, sterilized vegetable mixes with meat or fish, infant cereals and fruit purees.
The project carried out tests at the premises of five participating international infant food companies – FrieslandCampina based in the Netherlands, HiPP in Germany, Greek producer YIOTIS and two Chinese companies, Beingmate and YFFC.
The aim is to identify the main risks from both 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 have to convince industry that it’s important to focus on chemicals as well,” Engel said. “While the health effects are not as immediate as for microbes, they can still be significant in the longer term.”
SAFFI also aims to help food producers and authorities predict where potential problems might arise and therefore reduce the threat of contamination at every stage of production.
Conventional processes based on heat treatments, for example, could be replaced by pulsed combustion dryers, radio frequency heating and high pressure treatment, which are more effective in sterilizing foods while maintaining the optimal nutritional value of products. costs.
“We are verifying the effectiveness of these innovative processing technologies in controlling the growth, inhibition and inactivation of pathogens, as well as their ability to slow food degradation and limit the uptake of certain chemicals”, Engel said.
A healthy compromise
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 the know-how, SAFFI will help 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 Flagship Initiative on Food, Agriculture and Biotechnology (FAB), all seeking to continuously improve food safety monitoring.
Such cooperation can increase trade between the EU and China and provide European food companies with greater opportunities to expand in the international market. In addition, the standards set by SAFFI in the infant food sector could be extended to other food categories, according to Engel.
When it comes to health, the variety and quality of food also matters. A balanced diet can help prevent the onset of disease. It can also allow people with serious illnesses to heal and have a more stable life.
However, people react differently to the same foods or nutrients, depending on genetic and lifestyle factors. These include stress, exercise levels, individual microbiome makeup, and exposure to environmental toxins.
The EU-funded NUTRISHIELD project set out to create personalized diets tailored to individual biomarkers, with a particular focus on children with obesity and/or diabetes and nursing mothers.
The project analyzes a range of biomarkers linked to nutrition and health disorders, taking into account how each child reacts to different types of nutrients and foods.
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.
“Unlike current processes used to analyze bodily 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 Head of project at Alpes Lasers.
The company provided the project partners with the laser technology used to build analyzers for urine, breath and breast milk. Samples taken 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 particular variety of fruit or grain is needed for proper nutrition.
A study of young diabetic patients is underway at San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, Italy, while the Hospital La Fe Health Research Institute in Valencia, Spain is working with nursing mothers and newborn babies. . Studies conducted at Radboud University in the Netherlands aim to understand how nutrition can help and improve 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 longer term, these could be used in different medical settings to help patients of all ages.
The EU’s FOOD 2030 research and innovation policy aims to transform food systems and ensure that everyone has enough affordable, nutritious and safe food to lead a healthy life.
The initiative covers the entire food system, linking sectors from primary production (such as agriculture and fishing) to food processing, retail and distribution, packaging, waste and recycling, catering services and consumption.
The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizonthe European magazine for research and innovation.