New research for nutritional solutions to obesity and diabetes

15 October 2015

Nutritional solutions for obesity and poor metabolic health is the focus of a $2.9 million research programme to be funded by the new National Science Challenge, High-Value Nutrition.

The Challenge, one of eleven national science challenges, launches today with an investment of $10.9 million for research projects in nutrition and food science. It brings together New Zealand’s top food and nutrition scientists from across a range of disciplines and institutions to help reduce heart disease and diabetes and look at ways nutrition can improve immune defences and gastrointestinal health.

Founding director of the University of Auckland’s Human Nutrition Unit and Fonterra Chair in Human Nutrition, Professor Sally Poppitt from the University’s School of Biological Sciences, will lead the new obesity and metabolic health research programme, Peak Nutrition for Metabolic Health.

This programme will focus on Asian consumers looking for nutritional solutions to maintain good metabolic health throughout middle and older age. More than 1.5 billion adults worldwide are now overweight or obese and rates are rapidly rising throughout Asia, including China.

“Surprisingly perhaps, when matched against their European, Maori or Pacific counterparts, Asian consumers are at greater risk of poor metabolic health and that highlights the need for food and beverage products that provide better nutrition,” says High-Value Nutrition Science Director Professor David Cameron-Smith.

Scientists suspect the reasons some of us are more susceptible to conditions such as diabetes may lie in how we store body fat. Even small amounts of weight can lead to fat ‘spilling over’ from adipose (connective) tissue into vital organs such as muscle, liver and pancreas.

Paradoxically, people who are morbidly obese may not be at greatest risk. Even people who appear slim can develop diabetes while those who are morbidly obese may be resilient, something known as TOFI: Thin on the outside, fat on the inside.

Professor Poppitt’s national collaborative research team will be conducting clinical studies to investigate who is at risk of developing diabetes, what the early markers of the disease are and how nutritional solutions can be developed by New Zealand food and beverage exporters.

“Ultimately we are looking at the Metabolic Health programme to help New Zealand companies develop validated health claims for food and beverages that satisfy both national and international regulators and which appeal to the tastes of the Asian market,” Professor Cameron-Smith says.