Food and health, consumer behaviours, packaging, formulation, sustainable agriculture… What are the latest scientific advances for agri-food from around the world?
The role of immunonutrition in the face of the Covid-19 crisis, diet and dementia, packaging made from the durian plant, breaksin the cold chain, fertilisers made from urine… areas of scientific research can sometimes be surprising but always in service of discovery and innovation.
Read our Vitawatch monthly intelligence briefing for June.
Food and health
Coronavirus: doctors focus on the role of immunonutrition
While this is not a new idea, the role that nutrition plays in immune function is now clearer thanks to the identification of a series of micronutrients needed to meet the complex needs of the immune system.
In the article published in BMJ Nutrition, Drs Emma Derbyshire and Joanne Delange, from the British nutrition and biomedical consultancy Nutritional Insight, have used several studies to confirm the especially important role in immune response of the following micronutrients: vitamin C, a natural antioxidant, vitamin D, a powerful immunoregulator, and zinc, the “gatekeeper” of immune function.
"What remains to be confirmed are the doses and durations that these would need to be taken to be most beneficial," write the doctors.
A better application of immunonutrition, via supplementation in vitamins and the regular intake of foods rich in micronutrients, associated with appropriate public health policies, could present a benefit for vulnerable groups in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Meats, starches and snacks: food combinations could increase the risk of dementia
While there is much evidence of the benefits of a healthy diet on the brain, the way different foods are combined could provide a link to varying risks of dementia, according to a study published in Neurology. The study focused on 209 subjects suffering from dementia with an average age of 78 years old, and on 418 adults of all ages not suffering from dementia.
The study suggested that the subjects whose diets were mainly composed of processed meats, starches, alcohol, and snacks like cookies and cakes were more vulnerable to developing dementia than those whose diet included a greater variety of healthy foods. Cecelia Samieri, PhD researcher at the University of Bordeaux, and author of the study, explains that the experiment allowed the researchers to observe signs of dementia in the brain many years before they would otherwise have been detected.
Fenugreek extract could help to increase muscle mass
Testofen, an extract of the plant fenugreek, could prove effective in helping sports people to improve their physical performance. In a study published in Translational Sport Medicine, focusing on 138 men aged from 25 to 47 years old, scientists observed a reduction in body fat composition of 1.4% and an increase in lean muscle pass of 1.8% following 8 weeks of supplementation. These results could be explained by the extract's ability to increase the release of free testosterone from sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG).
Testofen could present benefits such as alleviating the symptoms of menupause, decreasing fasting blood glucose, or reducing the symptoms of androgen decline (a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal glands that regulates the development and maintenance of male characteristics).
Note: this study was funded by Gencor Pacific, the producer of Testofen.
Food formulation / processes
FODMAPs could be eliminated using enzymes, to reduce digestive upsets related to plant-based diets
Many plant-based foods, most notably legumes, contain compounds called FODMAPs (Fermentable Oligo, Di, Monosaccharides And Polyols) that can be difficult to digest and cause intestinal discomfort.
Finland’s center for technical research (VTT) has carried out a study of two key FODMAP compounds, galactane and fructane, with the goal of eliminating them from foods with the use of enzymes. “We utilised both commercial enzymes and ones produced at VTT in the project. We used them to test the removal of FODMAPs from faba bean and pea protein concentrates as well as from rye, graham and wheat flour", says Senior Research Scientist Antti Nyyssölä from VTT.
With positive results, the research centre next successfully tested the resistance of the enzymes to food processing treatments.
"The results are most likely to be utilised next in the development of new food items, but also in academic research in order to verify the effects on intestinal symptoms with certainty", Antti Nyyssölä continues.
The study has been published in Trends in Food Science and Technology
Food safety / packaging
Durian, a fruit from Asia, could be used to produce sustainable antimicrobial packaging
According to a study aiming to develop biocomposite materials as alternatives to current packaging, a team of Malaysian researchers have identified a solution using polylactic acid (PLA), epoxidized palm oil and durian skin fibres. Durian is a fruit native to South-East Asia, the Pacific islands and South America. Durian skin, with the addition of cinnamon oil, was shown to have antimicrobial properties.
Durian fruit contains 60% flesh, the remaining 40% (skin and seeds) are considered waste. Recycling the skin would therefore result in a new packaging material with several sustainability benefits: biodegradable (in only a few months), reducing plastic and reducing food waste products.
This material would also present the benefit of being adapted to 3D printing applications.
The study can be found in the IIUM Engineering Journal.
A label that alerts to breaks in the cold chain
A research team from the Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology (KRICT) has developed a label able to detect if food products are spoiled following exposure to breaks in the cold chain. If this is the case, the bacteria that can develop changes the appearance of the label and displays an alert message, thanks to the decomposition of a nanofibre film in the label.
Dr Dongyeop Oh of the KRICT says: "This sticker, once exposed to room temperature, cannot be restored to its original state even if one attempts to refrigerate or freeze it again. Also, room-temperature exposure time cannot be manually adjusted. This means that there is virtually no room for any manipulation.
The label has other advantages: it is thin and flexible and can be attached to many types of products, as well as presenting no chemical danger to food. It is also very cheap to produce. The results of the study were published in Advanced Materials online.
Human urine, tomorrow’s agricultural fertiliser?
Urine is the source of 80% of the nitrogen and 50% of the phosphorous that comes from waste water, while only representing a tiny proportion of total waste water quantities. After treatment, nitrogen can be used to produce agricultural fertilisers with a variety of characteristics (levels of nutrients or contaminants, in a variety of forms).
In order to study in further detail the different ways that urine-based fertilisers can be used, a series of agricultural tests have been carried out by the Saclay research platform in France. The effectiveness as a fertiliser of these treatments has been tested on several crops over (wheat, rapeseed and corn) a two year period. According to the results, urine-based fertilisers can be equal in fertilising effect to mineral fertilisers and greater in effect than usual organic fertilisers such as bovine slurry. One kilogram of nitrogen contained in urine-based fertiliser has the same effect as one kilogram of nitrogen in mineral fertiliser. Greenhouse gas emissions, ammonia volatilisation and residues of medicinal products are also being tested.
Agriculture: microbiome research could improve yields of crop rotation systems
An American research team from the Center for Applied Microbiome Science (CAMS) and the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI) of the Northern Arizona University have published an article titled “Phylogenetic farming: Can evolutionary history predict crop rotation via the soil microbiome?” in Evolutionary Applications. The article presents an overview of their research into the impact of soil microbiomes on agricultural production in the context of crop rotations.
Following a two-year experiment, the team confirms that knowledge of soil microbiomes is essential to optimising crop rotation systems and reducing costs related to fertilising and irrigation, while opening questions on widely accepted views on crop rotation practices.
The next stage of the study into crop rotation will identify important factors in plant yields. “Do we want to rotate crops that thrive with similar soil microbiomes, so that the beneficial bacteria and fungi are already in place to support the next growing season? That would be valuable information for both small urban farms and large industrial operations, " says Greg Caporaso, director of CAMS..
Within a related project, research is also being carried out to develop a better understanding of the role of microbiomes in the composing process.
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