Diet and health innovation boosted by new funding partnership

Close up of a family having breakfast

BBSRC and partners have launched 6 innovation hubs as part of a new Diet and Health Open Innovation Research Club (OIRC).

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with support from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Innovate UK and the Medical Research Council (MRC), have created a new Diet and Health OIRC.

Representing an investment of almost £15 million, the OIRC will help address critical shared barriers to innovation across the food and drink sector.

Public health challenge

Poor diet has a huge impact on public health. As recently highlighted in the government food strategy, there remains a major challenge in producing and encouraging the uptake of healthier, more nutritious food products in the UK.

The 6 innovation hubs announced as part of the Diet and Health OIRC will bring together world-class leaders from academia, industry and wider stakeholders to address these challenges.

Driving collaboration

Funding for the OIRC forms part of BBSRC and Innovate UK’s recent commitment to invest in strategic innovation programmes to help UK businesses collaborate with the UK research base.

The 6 innovation hubs that make up the new Diet and Health OIRC will support and drive progress across one or more of the following strategic priority areas:

  • understanding the interplay between food components and human physiology
  • improving health and nutrition through biofortification
  • biological, social and psychological determinants of food choice and eating behaviour
  • development of functional foods and beverages
  • understanding how food and beverages deliver improved nutrition across the life-course

Each innovation hub will build cross-sector collaborative networks to improve the UK’s capacity and capability and deliver world-class innovation around diet and health.

An innovative approach

Dr Lee Beniston FRSB, Associate Director for Industry Partnerships and Collaboration at BBSRC, said:

The OIRC is a new approach for BBSRC that provides an open innovation platform for businesses, researchers and wider government stakeholders to work together on a diverse range of research and innovation priorities.

Our partnership with Innovate UK, Defra and MRC greatly enhances what the programme can achieve while also providing a strong connectivity to national strategy and policy. This will ultimately help to deliver wider benefits to an industry that is a key part of the UK economy.

Better food for all

Richard Hebdon, Director of Health and Life Sciences at Innovate UK, said:

Innovate UK’s investment in the BBSRC-led Diet and Health OIRC supports our investment in the £20 million Better Food for All programme.

Together these programmes will provide funding to support strategic, collaborative research and development between businesses, researchers, policymakers and wider stakeholders in the important area of diet and health, helping to bridge the gap between research and translation.

This is another fantastic investment that builds on Innovate UK’s strong strategic partnership with BBSRC to support collaboration between business and the UK research base.

Supporting ambitious research

Dr Laura Dickens, Associate Director for Industry Partnerships at MRC, said:

We are pleased to participate in this partnership supporting ambitious new research as part of our priorities to address important nutrition and health challenges and broaden our support for industry-academia partnerships.

Establishing these innovation hubs will enable new research collaborations in this field to foster innovative approaches to solve an important public health issue that affects all of us. MRC support towards establishing the Brunstrom hub in particular will benefit underrepresented communities.

Closing the knowledge gap

Food Minister Mark Spencer said:

I am delighted that scientists and experts can now come together in these new innovation hubs to convene the latest science around obesity and healthy eating.

Together they can work to close the knowledge gaps between current dietary trends and obesity, while improving our understanding of the relationship between food and health.

Supporting this research is part of our commitment in the food strategy to boost healthier, more sustainable and accessible diets.

Further information

The 6 new innovation hubs

Translational innovation hub for population health using food and nutrition approaches to enhance positive physiology (The RIPEN Hub)

Lead principal investigator: Professor Gary Frost, Imperial College London

The UK has major public health problem with the continued rise in diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and cancer. Many of these are directly related to the food we eat.

This innovation hub brings together world-class leaders from academia, industry and civil society to better understand the causes of ill health within the food environment. Together, they will identify changes that can be made in our current food system that will help keep people healthy and well.

It will examine the physical, economic, political and socio-cultural context in which consumers engage with the food system to make their decisions about acquiring, preparing and consuming food. This approach will help make a significant change in our understanding of the relationship between food and physiology.

The hub’s ultimate aim is to bring the major players in the food physiology space together to support the development of healthier diets, thereby enhancing the health of the nation. It will also aim to create new pathways that prevent the development of obesity and other non-communicable diseases in the UK population.

Innovation hub for improving health and nutrition through biofortification (HERB hub)

Lead principal investigator: Professor Martin Warren, Quadram Institute Bioscience

The HERB hub will strengthen the UK’s position as a world-leader for research and commercialisation of biofortification (the development of crops and foods with higher levels of nutrients). There is a need to transform current food systems to ensure sufficient nutrition is available for all through sustainable routes.

Biofortification has a role to play in delivering that. This hub brings together the expertise needed to address new opportunities and innovations in biofortification and build new capacity to address the challenges, delivering real world applications.

The innovation hub combines expertise in soil, crop genetics, food innovation, human health and nutrition. It will work closely on the biofortification of food and feed crops with farmers, food producers and retailers across the supply chain.

Consumer lab: building academic industry partnerships to ensure sustained acceptance of healthy foods

Lead principal investigator: Professor Jeffrey Brunstrom, University of Bristol

Poor diet has a huge impact on public health. It’s possible to innovate and improve the nutritional quality of food, but these efforts are wasted if new products do not appeal to consumers. While the UK has extensive expertise and research on dietary behaviour, the data is often collected in a laboratory and from unrepresentative samples.

There is a clear need for better tools to understand food choice and how better food products can be accepted in real world settings. We also need to understand more about how changes to food packaging, labelling and how it is made available can influence people’s preferences and behaviours.

This hub will transform opportunities for product innovation by addressing these long-standing issues and concerns.

Our vision is to develop a distributed UK-wide ‘consumer lab’ comprising a network of industry and academic members with a portfolio of interdisciplinary methods. Combined, those methods will provide high-quality information about food choice and dietary behaviours in everyday places such as the home, cafés and school canteens.

The hub will develop partnerships that incorporate novel methods of data capture, including capturing images of food intake in real-time, metabolic markers, continuous blood-glucose measurement and wearable monitoring devices.

Recognising underrepresented communities, the hub will also prioritise methods and research aimed at studying food choice in these groups to help the food industry address their specific needs.

Investigating the role of functional foods and beverages to improve health and recovery (INFORM)

Lead principal investigator: Dr Gemma Emily Walton, University of Reading

Trillions of bacteria inhabit the human gastrointestinal tract (gut). They grow within us and produce a range of end products that can impact on our health. The diet we consume influences this microbial community, and that means we can alter these inhabitants through food and drink, thereby having an influence on health.

INFORM is a multidisciplinary project examining the potential for functional foods (foods that contain health-giving additives) to improve human health via their impacts on gut microbes. Primarily, this aims to improve recovery from exercise, mental stress or physical illness through the consumption of prebiotics, probiotics and plant stanols.

This hub brings together academic experts in gut microbiome, mental health, sports and exercise, bone health, metabolism and clinical conditions. They will collaborate with members of the food, healthcare and sport industries.

The hub will run for 5 years and will be open for new members. It will be dynamic in its remit and evolve, adopting industry trends, advances in research capabilities, government policy and regulatory frameworks.

Understanding how food and beverages deliver improved nutrition across the life-course

Lead principal investigator: Professor Philip Calder University of Southampton

Ageing is often accompanied by a loss of physiological homeostasis and of resilience to challenge. Age-related functional decline has a major musculoskeletal, cognitive, metabolic and immune impacts, amongst others, and while people now live longer than before, many live with illness and disease with a poor quality of life and reduced ability to contribute to society.

There are immense societal and economic costs associated with age-related functional decline. Poor diet in adulthood is a known contributor to age-related functional decline. However, early life diet (from pre-conception to adolescence) can have long-term consequences including on age-related functional decline.

The hub will catalyse high quality and novel collaborative research involving academia, industry and other stakeholders to understand how food and beverages can deliver improved nutrition across the entire life-course including in older age. This will provide the basis to translate cutting-edge research findings into more healthful foods and beverages that can change biological and physiological processes to meet consumer need.

Start healthy – stay healthy: aligning public and planetary health through precision plant-based dietary solutions across the life-course

Lead principal investigator: Dr Kourosh Ahmadi, University of Surrey

Mental health disorders and dementias are 2 of the greatest causes of disability worldwide. In the UK, the latest data from the NHS shows that as many as 1 in 6 children, adolescents and adults suffer from a probable mental health problem or dementia.

Diet is recognised as the most important lifestyle factor in the development of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer, mental health problems and dementia.

Moving our diets to include more plant-based dietary alternatives could provide a healthier and more sustainable solution in our goal in improving and aligning public and planetary health.

The new hub will broker and support new academic-industry partnerships to leverage existing evidence to produce novel, affordable and sustainably produced plant-based dietary solutions. Those solutions will preserve and boost vital physiological processes that translate to better mental and cognitive health of individuals throughout life (pregnancy, lactation, childhood, middle and older age).

Innovate UK Better Food for All programme

£1 million of the announced investment aligns with the Innovate UK Better Food for All programme. The Better Food for All programme aims to support UK businesses in the development of innovative solutions to address significant nutrition challenges.

Funding will support early-stage feasibility studies, industrial research and later stage projects across areas including:

  • enhancing food quality
  • innovative technologies and processes to improve the nutritional quality of foods and ingredients
  • functional foods
  • products aimed at particular demographics or groups
  • fortified and biofortified foods including processed foods, convenience foods and raw materials produced at farm level
  • plant-based and alternative proteins
  • preservation, packaging and storage technologies to increase shelf life, including healthy convenient foods and nutritious perishable foods

An aligned Knowledge Transfer Partnership competition will link forward thinking businesses with the UK’s world-class knowledge base to deliver innovation projects.

These will embed skills and capabilities into businesses, allowing them to innovate and grow.

The £20 million Better Food for All programme opens in January 2023.

Full details will be made available on the Innovate UK website.

Top image:  Credit: vorDa, E+ via Getty Images

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