Healthcare and nutrition professionals discussed the transition in the sector value-chain at the fourth edition of the event, focussing on individual-centred nutrition as the key to a healthier society.
The COVID-19 outbreak is not the only pandemic that we are living through, as food-related non-infectious diseases cause one million deaths each year. Because of this, nutrition is key to a healthier society and to the future of the agrifood industry. This idea was the focal point of the fourth edition of the EIT Food Innovation Forum, held over 16-17 June at the Bilbao Exhibition Centre (BEC).
International healthcare and nutrition experts came together at the event organised in Bilbao and accessible online. Taking advantage of the huge transition taking place in the traditional approach of the agrifood industry, the event brought together professionals from all points of the value chain to discuss potential solutions to current challenges.
The fourth edition of the EIT Food Innovation Forum examined the future of personalised nutrition and how new eating trends will transform the agri-food sector in the years to come. Begoña Pérez Villareal, Director of the EIT Food Innovation hub for Southern Europe, explained: “We need to take a serious look at how personalised nutrition can change the future of food, and professionals from all areas of the industry need to take part in this change.”
After the opening address by Pérez Villareal, several international experts from all along the value chain addressed the matter from their respective fields. First up was Miguel Jiménez, CEO and founder of FFWD, who looked at forward thinking for the future of the food business: “The discourses being drawn up for the future are eminently human, based on current ideas such as the obsession around physical appearance, monitoring our activity and the simple pleasure of eating things that we like.” According to Jiménez, “corporations nowadays need to design even more scenarios, to foresee and enhance these discourses”, in order to improve nutrition “beyond taking dietary supplements.”
Sofía Pérez, Director of R&D&I at Calidad Pascual, Gregorio Varela, Chairman of the Spanish Nutrition Association, and Javier Aranceta, Chairman of the Royal Basque Nutrition Academy and of the Community Nutritional Science Committee, discussed their perspectives at a round-table session hosted by Lorena Savani, Innovation Manager at EIT Food.
According to Varela, “there is no one single definition of a healthy diet, although there are certain patterns, such as it should be balanced in nutrients. Even so, this will always depend on the characteristics of each individual and their environment.” Aranceta, agreeing with him, said that “dietary guidelines and food pyramids are useful for 80% of the population. The others will have special needs.” In this area, the industry plays an important role: “Guidelines can help us to assess our products, and we take them into account when developing new products. However, we must remember that individual genetic profiles and microbiotics have a major influence, and this must be taken into account going forward”, said Pérez. Despite all this, education is very important: “We need to learn to spend more time buying food, cooking, eating...”, said Aranceta. “Taking all these things into account, but not obsessing about them”, added Varela.
Personalised nutrition as the basis for a healthier society
Nutrition is a key health factor. Dr Conor Kerley, Founder and Chief Science Officer at Phytaphix stated that there is “robust, consistent evidence.” In 2017, more than 11 million people died from not eating the right food or eating too many of the wrong ones. “Three million were caused by high sodium levels and another three million due to not eating enough fruit, among others”, added Kerley, who believes that improving our diet could “prevent one out of every five deaths in the world”, according to a study carried out in 2017.
Key elements such as nitrate, present in spinach, carrots and other foodstuffs, “could help to reduce glucose levels and blood pressure.” Cutting down our consumption of red meat and processed food could help ward off common threats. “Everybody agrees about this, because what we eat is important too; not just what we don't eat.”
This is one of the causes of the alarming prevalence of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, obesity and type 2 diabetes, affecting almost one billion persons. The coronavirus pandemic has simply intensified the need to reassess them. Speaking at the Food Innovation Forum, Thomas Hayes, an analyst with Lux Research, commented that the cost of these diseases will amount to $2.6 trillion by 2030. “The solution for diet-related diseases must be efficient and low-cost,” he added.
Hayes believes that personalised nutrition is a mechanism with a high potential for solving this need, and that it needs to encompass a wide range of specifications, from lifestyle to microbiome. “Interest in innovating in this field is growing, having increased 3.5 times since 2016. Investment is also growing in 2021, thanks to the advances being made by start-ups.” Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of the size of the problem, and “multinational companies also have a key role to play to increase the impact.”
With an eye to furthering solutions towards a future free of non-infectious diseases, the EIT Food team, as part of the AHFES programme (focusing on increasing competitiveness in SMEs), the Elika Foundation, and the Maldita Ciencia team offered a participatory workshop for attending European SMEs. The event drew an overview of the main challenges surrounding labelling and regulation. Marketing strategies often do not take them into account, which can lead to confusion among consumers.
At Thursday's session, international experts Chaysavanh Manichanh, Lead Researcher at VIHR, Anthony Finbow, CEO at Eagle Genomics, Abelardo Margolles, Senior Scientist at IPLA-CSIC, and Patrick Veiga, Health & Microbiome Science Director at Danone Nutricia Research, took part in a round table about the microbiome and nutritional bio-markers.
“We don't eat just to feed our bodies, but also to feed the microbiome that lives inside them, which varies greatly from one person to another, so we need to know the right ones.”, said Veiga. However, this is no easy task. “It is very difficult to define a healthy microbiome, because no doubt we all have one, but they differ greatly among different people. We must always analyse it in conjunction with the host body,” added Margolles.
Manichanh explained that one of the most widely-held misconceptions is to think that “we can define our microbiotic profile and our GP can use it to diagnose our problem. It is very complicated and there are many factors yet to investigate.” Veiga pointed out that the main barrier is “reaching the general population and explaining what a microbiome is. We have to make it clear that it is beneficial for our health and that the right diet helps to care for it.”