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In the autumn of 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) caused quite a stir when it announced that sausage is carcinogenic. An analysis of the results of many hundreds of studies had shown that processed meat increases a person’s risk of contracting cancer. This provoked widespread alarm – hardly surprising given that Germans alone consume on average 60 kilograms of meat per person per year, twice as much as the German Nutrition Society (DGE) recommends. The figure is even higher in the USA, at 120 kilograms per year.
Fat and sugar can make us ill
Our diet also plays an important role in other widespread diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disorders and type 2 diabetes, a condition that normally occurs only in adults. It is believed that a diet rich in fat and sugar, and excessive consumption of meat and sausage, is one of the causes – alongside a lack of exercise and a genetic predisposition.
Four dynamic food research clusters
Are these correlations true? And what in fact prompts us to choose which foods? How does our diet, coupled with our lifestyle choices and genetic predisposition, affect our health? These are the questions that nutrition researchers are seeking to answer. To ensure that progress is made in this field, and that findings can be translated into dietary recommendations and new products as quickly as possible, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research is funding four clusters of excellence in nutrition research.
What is the best diet for the over-forties?
NutriAct, one of the clusters of excellence, is focusing in particular on people of middle age and older. What should this group be eating to remain as healthy as possible in the second half of their lives? Professor Andreas Pfeiffer, who heads the Department of Clinical Nutrition at the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Potsdam, does not intend to rely on surveys alone for the NutriAct dietary study that was launched in 2016. "We give our test subjects detailed advice and monitor what they eat as best we can. We actually supply them with a lot of their food", explains Professor Pfeiffer, a medical expert who specialises in the molecular mechanisms of our metabolism.
Good fat and good proteins
Over the course of three years, Pfeiffer and his team will be monitoring the diet of 500 test subjects aged 50 to 75: one randomly selected group will eat a balanced diet with lots of grains and vegetables, dairy products every day but little meat – the diet that is generally recommended. The second group will be given a diet richer in fat and protein. "In the past, that was normally considered less healthy", says Pfeiffer. Nonetheless, he expects to see a positive impact on the metabolism because the diet of these study participants will comprise chiefly unsaturated fatty acids from vegetable oils. These are regarded as "good" fats, just as proteins from pulses are considered to be healthy even when eaten in larger quantities, unlike the proteins to be found in meat.
A diet rich in fat and protein?
This diet is expected to reduce a person’s risk of contracting diabetes or cardiovascular problems, and to strengthen the musculature, which helps prevent infirmity in old age. Pfeiffer also believes that the diet will improve a person’s memory and ability to concentrate. The study participants will undergo regular examinations to monitor the effect of their fat- and protein-rich diet. The precise liver fat content for example will be determined by means of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, as will the insulin sensitivity of the body’s cells – both being biomarkers for the risk of diabetes or a heart attack.
How to make popular foods healthier
At the same time as conducting their nutrition study, Pfeiffer and his colleagues are also collaborating with ready-meal manufacturers who are tailoring their products to these healthy dietary principles. Making popular foods healthier is also a strategy pursued by the nutriCARD cluster. Together with regional manufacturers, they are improving pasta, sausage and even dairy products such as yogurt by adding vegetable-based proteins and "good" fats. They are also to contain less sugar and salt – but without sacrificing taste.
Individual dietary suggestions via app
Taste differs from one person to another, just as dietary habits do. A project being run by the Bavarian-based enable cluster is therefore aiming to discover whether individualised dietary recommendations can have a greater impact than more general guidelines. To this end, nutrition researchers have joined forces with IT experts at the Technical University of Munich to develop the "Nutrilize" app. Users state what they eat and what they enjoy eating, as well as providing their weight and other information. They then receive dietary and recipe suggestions on the basis of the data they enter. The Munich researchers hope that the app will help users to eat a healthier diet.
Packaging also plays a role
It is not only taste and our eating habits that often cause us to ignore dietary recommendations, however. Packaging also plays a role. What does a yogurt pot look like? Are words like "light" or "healthy" used to advertise the product? How a product’s colour and design and any additional information that is provided affect the purchasing decision is one of many questions that neuroscientists and nutrition researchers in the Diet Body and Brain cluster are attempting to answer. This is important to know, as consumer groups and politicians regularly debate which kind of information on packaging is likely to prompt consumers to make a "healthy" choice.
As these four clusters make quite clear, what we eat is about a great deal more than simply supplying our bodies with energy. The food we will be eating in the future not only looks promising, but is also sure to taste great.