This week, FIA caught up with eminent nutritionist/food technologist Professor Jeyakumar Henry, Director of Singapore’s new Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC), to review the latest developments in food technology, industry collaboration and Singapore’s emergence as a global hub for nutritional research.

Prof Jeya’s research programmes include ‘Future Foods for a Healthier Asia’, which studies food in the management and treatment of chronic disease (obesity, diabetes, CVD) with special reference to Asian communities. One such programme, entitled, ‘Energy Requirements of Today’s Asian’ aims to understand the role of diet in optimising energy intake and expenditure, in order to reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes.

Launched in late 2013, CNRC is a joint initiative between the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences, A*STAR and the National University Health System. The centre specialises in basic and translational human nutrition research involving studies across the life cycle. These include investigation of the impact of micro-and macro-nutrient intake on human physiology and understanding the role of food structure on human nutrition.

FIA: How is CNRC exploring the science behind health and nutrition amongst Asian consumers?

Prof Jeya: The key focus for our centre is to try to understand how diet influences the Asian phenotype. In particular, we are trying to understand how food and diet components influence metabolic responses in the Chinese, Indian and Malay population. This is important because almost all previous research on carbohydrates, fats or proteins has been done on Caucasian populations, as Europe is where the historical science of nutrition evolved. But we now know that dietary components influence and impact these three ethnic groups differently and our focus is to understand the role of diet in Asian phenotypes.

Our work in this area is important for two reasons. The first example would be an international or multinational company wanting to develop a biscuit or snacks. A product that has been developed for a Western population may not be suitable for Asian consumers.

The second point is that the highest growth in the food and beverage sector is going to be in Asian markets for the next 10 to 20 years. Companies need to adapt the food products that are largely predicated on the Western models to appease the taste, the texture and the nutritional needs of the Asian consumer. Therefore our research focus can be best described as understanding food and food ingredients in relation to the Asian phenotype.

FIA: What are the factors that position Singapore as a global hub for nutritional sciences?

Prof Jeya: Multinational food companies strive to penetrate Asian markets such as China, India and Indonesia, which together represent about 3.2 billion people. Rather than pursuing studies in these 3 countries separately, companies can achieve this in one single location - Singapore - where we have significant Chinese, Indian and Malay populations. The scientific rigour of Singapore has allowed us the incredible opportunity of developing a one-stop research centre.

FIA: What role can partnerships play in developing new and healthier food products for consumers?

Prof Jeya: I firmly believe there should be a much closer partnership between industry and academia. Up until now, there has been some hesitancy from many academics to align with industry. Many global challenges can only be resolved through multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder collaboration. It is thus very important to nurture such partnerships.

Also, the industry by definition, enjoys far greater insights into consumer preferences than those of us in the academic world. Food companies have vast knowledge in terms of categories and properties of food, and great expertise in marketing, and they want to be at the cutting edge of the science. That is where the academics can act as a valuable partner. It is crucial that both academia and industry become greater than the sum of their parts. Stronger incentives should be provided to encourage closer partnerships between industry, academia and government.

FIA: What emerging trends are you seeing in innovation and reformulation? What opportunities are there for the F&B industry to use innovation to meet changing consumer demands?

Prof Jeya
: Consumers are increasingly interested in the use of natural ingredients or nature-identical ingredients in their food products. The perception that natural products are better than some additives is an urban myth which is hard to challenge.

There is also little doubt in my mind that future nutritionists are going to embrace the use of diet as a form of medicine. For example, diet might be used routinely to reduce cholesterol, to reduce blood pressure, to alter brain cognition, or to retard senescence. Food companies have realised that they can compete head-to-head with some pharmacological compounds, as we now have substantial evidence that there are some food ingredients which have absolutely positive effects on blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose response, and triglyceride, for example. We are moving into an era where we can say that diets are the new medicine. The food industry has recognised that if we predicate food as being both an enjoyable commodity and one with health attributes, that’s an incredible selling point.


Notes

Prof Jeya acts regularly as a consultant to the WHO, FAO, UNICEF and to numerous food companies worldwide on all aspects of food and nutrition. In 2008, he was one of the Expert Panel Members of the FAO/WHO Consultancy on Fats and Fatty Acids. Prof Jeya is the Editor-in-Chief of the Advances in Food and Nutrition Research. In 2009, he initiated UK’s first functional food centre in Oxford. His major research interests are in energy regulation, functional foods, obesity treatment, Glycaemic control, energy/ protein metabolism, and nutrition in the elderly. His work on energy metabolism culminated in the development of the “Henry equations” to predict Basal metabolic rate.

Prof Jeya is also a visiting professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He has served on several committees including UK committee on medical aspects of food and nutrition policy (COMA) panel on Novel Food. He is a board member of the UK Food Standards Agency, and member of the general Advisory Committee on Science of the Food standard agency. In 2012 both the UK and EU adopted Prof Jeya’s equations to predict energy needs. He was the recipient of the British Nutrition Foundation Award for the Outstanding Nutritionist of the year 2010. In 2012, the International Union of food scientists and technologists made Prof Jeya a fellow of the International Academy of Food Science and Technology.



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