11 November 2016

New interdisciplinary research group at FOOD sees food science as a path to better health


In recent years, the Department of Food Science (FOOD) at the University of Copenhagen has had an increased research focus on how food affects human health. This focus cuts across department disciplines, so FOOD has established an interdisciplinary research group, FOOD-Health, which deals with the part of the food research that are aiming at creating better health in the population.

Written by Lene Hundborg Koss, FOOD Communication

A new cross-disciplinary research group at FOOD are concerned with public health. Picture: Lene Hundborg Koss

At FOOD there are no scientists who work only with health, but there are many who spend a lot of time working with health-related food science, so it makes sense to create a forum that prioritizes a health angle. The research is often carried out in collaboration with interdisciplinary external partners, but also with several researchers internally, each with their specific expertise.

“In the department’s four sections we have many different competencies that we can bring into play and I believe the new interdisciplinary research group FOOD-Health will open up for new, more holistic and innovative research ideas that have a health perspective on food research,” says Dennis Sandris Nielsen, associate professor at FOOD and head of the new cross-disciplinary research group.

And the department already has many examples of research involving public health. 

“As food scientists, we can create food for specific audiences, so that the food supports precisely those challenges the target groups have. An example is premature babies, where we at FOOD are researching how you can create better health outcomes for premature babies by processing infant formula in a certain way,” says Dennis Sandris Nielsen.

Another example is food that is targeted towards the challenges faced by different groups of the elderly.

“This could be, for example, difficulty chewing or the loss of taste and smell, both of which can at least partly be dealt with by food science. With regard to chewing difficulty, you can develop foods that are healthy, but also have a consistency that makes it possible for the elderly to eat the food and thus achieve better nutrition,” says Dennis Sandris Nielsen.

Associate Professor at the Department of Food Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, Dennis Sandris Nielsen.

He expects that with this new venture, FOOD will have created a number of results in five years that will have an impact on society.

“I think we will have come a long way in the fields of health that are already our strength areas. For example, health in relation to the older part of the population. We will also have identified some biomarkers that can predict widespread health problems in different populations, which is important with respect to treatment and prevention, but also because the biomarkers can be used in studies that look at how you can influence health through food processing,” explains Dennis Sandris Nielsen.

Traditionally, FOOD has been a product-oriented department, but the research has been unfolding more in recent years and involves more collaboration, so there are also more eyes on the issues.

“For us as a department, it is obvious to investigate how to improve processing – for example, to use a raw material better or to save water in production, which does not necessarily have a health focus. But research into a gentler processing of a product with an aim to create greater sustainability could also have a health focus. We would like to think further and broader about our research and in FOOD-Health we would like to think more about health and then the process rather than in the reverse order,” says Dennis Sandris Nielsen.

He believes that food science has a good foundation for creating more health.

“At FOOD, we are good at understanding food and how to process it. The processing influences our health and we must have deeper understanding of this. Through disciplines like metabolomics, proteomics and microbiomics we have the ability to measure and explore health in order to improve it for as many as possible. And then we will of course bring our knowledge to companies – both through our students and through the research projects that we are collaborating with industry on,” says Dennis Sandris Nielsen