AgResearch-led project receives $3.6 million for research into gut health

Associate Professor Nicole Roy

The Asian middle-classes are the target for an AgResearch-led project into gut health which has just been allocated $3.6 million by the High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge.

Principal Investigator Associate Professor Nicole Roy says she and other AgResearch colleagues will be working with the University of Otago, the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research and Plant & Food Research in their research into the relationship between nutrition and gut health.

The Challenge aims to drive innovation in nutrition research, food science and health, to position New Zealand as a world leader in the rapidly-increasing food for health market.

Associate Professor Roy says there is a substantial market in Asia for food products with substantiated health benefits.

“In determining what we were going to do, we started with the consumer – the person buying these food products that will be developed and marketed by the New Zealand food industry based on the results of our work. We know that there is a link between the food we eat, how our gut functions and our brain. Stress is known to trigger poor gut function and discomfort. We want to provide knowledge that industry will use to develop food products to address this,” she says.

“We are focussing on the Asian markets because there’s already an established culture that understands the benefits of such foods. A large number of these people lead stressful professional lives and experience gut problems as a result, which affects their productivity and quality of life. Gut health is a rising concern for consumers.”

The emerging middle and upper classes in Asia who want to excel as their careers and age advance are an important consumer group. They will purchase food and beverage products to feel physically comfortable and fit, to stay mentally sharp and to slow cognitive decline.

“Our focus will also consider the increasing evidence that the two-way communication between the gut and the brain is central to these problems.”

Associate Professor Roy says the research is aimed at fast-tracking opportunities helping New Zealand’s food and beverage industry to develop and market foods with validated health benefits, such as improved gut function and comfort.

“Our hypothesis is that the dynamic operations of the gut are a critical component of the gut-brain axis, and gut-brain axis signalling underpins the beneficial effects of foods on gut function and comfort, with flow-on effects to the brain.”

The first step is to determine the diagnostic predictability of functional Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) phenotypes. IBS patients are considered the appropriate study group to support claims on improved gut function and comfort intended for the general population. The researchers’ second objective is to identify mechanistic insights, then have proof-of-principle in food interventions.

Associate Professor Roy says the initial programme is for three-and-a-half years, and the potential made by possible by the National Science Challenge is exciting.

“Working with people, some of whom you’ve only previously known by reputation, for a common goal for New Zealand Inc is really inspiring. I think the research has the potential to make some significant advances in our understanding of how food can affect not only gut function but also in the longer term, with other research programmes in New Zealand, how our gut communicates with our brain, and vice versa. It’s great to be able to have the ability to study this in collaboration with a range of expert people and expert techniques ultimately utilising the best talent that New Zealand has.”

AgResearch staff will also be working in four other teams that have also received grants from High-Value Nutrition. They are Immune Health, led by the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research; Metabolic Health, led by the University of Auckland; and preliminary projects led by Massey University on the food science of health foods, and by Plant & Food Research on consumer insights in relation to food-for-health in our key markets with a focus on Asia.