11 November 2016

Food science can improve public health


Food science is concerned with the development of new food products, processing, taste, consistency and storage in relation to making the food delicious and safe – and healthy. As food scientists, we have increased our focus on how food can support good health in recent years. We have now taken advantage of this and created FOOD-Health – an interdisciplinary research group for department researchers who are working with food science in relation to creating better public health.

Picture of former head of FOOD UCPH, Bjarke Bak Christensen

Head of FOOD UCPH, Bjarke Bak Christensen. Foto: Troels Heien

Today many consumers know a great deal about good and healthy nutrition. Yet many of us continue to choose unhealthy foods because they satisfy some need or habit we have. Since various health campaigns haven't motivated everyone, there is a big job for us as food scientists to offer some healthy alternatives to unhealthy foods. We have to produce healthier alternatives that taste just as good and is just as satisfying and accessible as the unhealthier alternative.  We must help to shape the future of healthy eating habits and must think about how products fit into food conceptions and with the consumer’s selection and eating situations.

Some will say that there already have been produced a lot of healthy alternatives for the more unhealthy beverages and foods, and that is also true – the problem is that they often do not taste good enough – or that they are not healthy enough or accessible enough. In addition, there are also challenges with regard to consistency, satiety – and in many cases we only have a partial understanding of how the food is broken down and absorbed by our body. To produce some foods and meals that meet all the above requirements/needs and where we understand how they affect the body might sound simple, but in reality it requires an extensive knowledge about food at the molecular and microbiological level. We have this knowledge at FOOD and we would very much like to put it even more into play with both companies and public institutions – with public health as a clear focus. However, there is also a great deal of research waiting ahead of us.

As food scientists, we have several ways of creating better health for all:

  1. The creative, where food science draws on gastronomy and sensory science (the science of the sensory perceptions of products) in order to identify foods and meals that are healthy, accessible and meet the sensory and consumer needs.
  2. The process technology path where we identify milder processing methods that better preserve the healthy elements of ingredients and foods.

A challenge in relation to path number 2 is that the word “processing” when it comes to food is mostly being used in a negative way. For example, we talk about highly processed meats in the context of cancer – and that side of the case must off course also be included in the debate. But we have come so far that in several areas we are able to process food in a milder way so that it is considerably healthier. So processing is not just a bad thing – to the contrary, if we do it wisely. Here we have a communication task. The consumers must of course also be willing to accept the health we create in that way. Therefore, another task is to create new initiatives for collaborations with consumers so they will have greater participation and thus confidence in new process technology solutions that promote health.

Then there is the third way, where food science intersects with health science.

At FOOD, we have in recent years had a major focus on how the bioactive compounds in food affect the body and health. For example, we study the effect of food on the intestinal microbiome (intestinal flora) and how the conversion of substances from the food, via blood tests, can tell us something about our nutrition levels and state of health though a Big Data approach (metabolomics). We have this focus in several research projects where we are collaborating with other departments at the University of Copenhagen, with the hospital and care sectors, in addition to food companies and other universities in Denmark and abroad.

The above is the reason why we at FOOD have now established the interdisciplinary research group FOOD-Health, comprised of researchers from all four FOOD sections: Microbiology and Fermentation, Ingredient and Dairy Technology, Design and Consumer Behavior and Food Analytics and Biotechnology.

In this issue of FOOD’s alumni newsletter you can read about food science research with public health in mind and in several cases close related to health science.

Happy reading!

Bjarke Bak Christensen

Head of the Department of Food Science (FOOD) at the University of Copenhagen