By DANIEL DE LORENZO
If we are what we eat, as the saying goes, the quality of food is key to our health. And as food production and trade increases in response to greater global demand, safety and quality controls have become even more vital.
The impact of diet on health is difficult to exaggerate. Obesity worldwide has almost tripled since 1975, and in Europe it affects almost 60% of adults and almost one in three children. Diabetes is also on the rise and Europe has a remarkably high number of children with type 1: 295 000 in 2021.
Eating a varied and healthy diet can improve overall well-being and reduce the risk of long-term illness. In addition, consumers are calling for greater transparency in the food chain following food fraud incidents such as the contamination of infant formula with melamine in 2008, the discovery of fipronil in eggs in 2017, and sporadic salmonella outbreaks.
“Food safety systems in Europe are generally effective, but we believe it is possible to improve safety and quality levels even further,” said Dr Erwan Engel, director of research at the National Institute of Agriculture, Food and Environment of France (INRAE).
Engel coordinates the EU-funded SAFFI project which brings together major research organizations and baby food producers from Europe and China. As babies, children and young people are more vulnerable and need high quality nutrition to grow, the project is investigating ways to ensure greater safety in production.
Aside from breast milk, infant formula and baby food are the most important part of a child’s diet during the first year of life. Prevention of microbial or chemical contamination in the processing chain is a priority.
60 million mouths
SAFFI targets food for the 15 million children in the EU and the 45 million in China under the age of three. The partners are focusing on four popular baby food lines: formula, sterilized mixed vegetables with meat or fish, baby cereals and fruit purees.
The project has carried out trials 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 aim is to identify the main risks from both microbial hazards, including bacteria, and potential chemical contaminants in the food chain.
Chemical pollutants 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 industry that it’s important to focus on chemicals as well,” Engel said. “Although the health effects are not as immediate as microbes, they can still be significant in the long term.”
SAFFI also aims to help food producers and authorities predict where potential problems could arise and, as a result, reduce the threat of contamination at every stage of production.
Classical processes based on heat treatments, for example, could be replaced by pulse combustion dryers, radio frequency heating and high pressure processing, which are better at sterilizing food while maintaining the optimal nutritional value of fresh produce.
“We test the effectiveness of these innovative processing technologies in controlling the growth, inhibition and inactivation of pathogens, as well as their ability to slow down food degradation and limit the integration of certain chemicals,” Engel said.
The food and drink sector, including baby food, is a major contributor to the EU economy with exports of €110 billion in 2019. Through investment in training and knowledge sharing, SAFFI it 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 flagship EU-China Food, Agriculture and Biotechnology (FAB) initiative, with all those seeking continuous improvement in food safety control.
This cooperation can increase EU-China trade and provide European food companies with more opportunities to expand in the international market. In addition, the standards established by SAFFI in the baby food sector could be extended to other food categories, according to Engel.
When it comes to health, the variety and quality of food also count. A balanced diet can help prevent disease in the first place. It can also enable people with serious illnesses to heal and lead more stable lives.
However, people respond differently to the same foods or nutrients, depending on genetic and lifestyle factors. These include stress, exercise levels, individual microbiome composition, and exposure to environmental toxins.
The EU-funded NUTRISHIELD project has set out 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 analyzing 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 includes research and clinical partners from all over 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 body fluids, the laser technology can work with very small samples of urine, a necessity when small patients can only produce minimal amounts,” said Miltos Vasileiadis, business developer and Alpes Lasers project manager.
The company has provided project partners with the laser technology used to build human urine, breath and milk analyzers. Collected samples 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 required for adequate nutrition.
A study of young diabetes patients is underway at San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, Italy, while La Fe Hospital Health Research Institute in Valencia, Spain, is working with nursing mothers and newborns. Studies conducted at Radboud University in the Netherlands aim to understand how nutrition can help and improve children’s cognitive development.
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 help patients of any age.
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 live a healthy life.
The initiative covers the entire food system, linking primary production sectors (such as agriculture and fishing) with processing, retailing and distribution of food, packaging, waste and recycling, catering and consumption services.
The research for this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in horizonthe EU research and innovation magazine.