Diets for the future

Sustenance rations for malnourished children in famine-hit countries were supposed to prevent stunting and wasting. But they didn’t.

In Solutions5 Minutes

Sustenance rations for malnourished children in famine-hit countries were supposed to prevent stunting and wasting. But they didn’t.

Now research in Palmerston North is leading the way in developing methods and data to produce nutrition guidelines that will form the lifesaving diets of the future.

Riddet Institute senior research officer Dr Suzanne Hodgkinson says the old protein nutritional guidelines are known to be flawed and new ones are needed.

The Kiwi protein researcher is a specialist in dietary protein digestion and metabolism as well as dietary protein quality evaluation. The Riddet Institute is a Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE), hosted by Massey University in Palmerston North, focusing on advanced food research.

Early in October Hodgkinson was invited to speak at an invitation-only meeting in Vienna where scientists and policy makers were hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and scientific research materials provider the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). She also moderated two working groups and chaired the entire second day of the four-day meeting.

The technical meeting centred on the human nutritional guidelines on protein requirements and the work towards turning new findings about the protein quality of different foods into a public database.

“It is a big deal for New Zealand and the Riddet Institute that we are involved,” Hodgkinson says.
Her work on a new methodology called Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS) was the focus of her presentation to the meeting.

Currently there is not enough information on how much protein (and the protein building blocks known as amino acids) is in different foods and how these are absorbed by the body. The work is looking at how much of each amino acid is available to the body when different foods are consumed.

Hodgkinson says DIAAS is the best method currently available to evaluate protein quality. The new knowledge will lead to formulating food and diets that will maintain health, particularly in developing countries.

Her work is part of a three-year international collaboration of protein researchers called Proteos, with the research being coordinated by the Riddet Institute. The collaboration means research methods can be assessed in different laboratories around the world to make sure results are consistent and valid.

Eventually a database will be formed showing the protein component and quality of more than 100 foods.
She says a turning point has been attracting funding from a consortium of international food companies, coordinated by the Global Dairy Platform.

This has provided the means to research alternate food sources that might be more accessible for vulnerable populations. One of these has been the African plant amaranth, an ancient grain found to be high in protein and minerals. Other foods that are commonly consumed in developing countries have also been included, such as millet, cassava, rice and sorghum.

“In the past, foods were only evaluated if there was a commercial reason to do so,” Dr Hodgkinson says.
She says the consortium is motivated by altruistic reasons for doing the research, but some alternate protein sources may end up having commercial use as well.

“The companies are very much in agreement that this knowledge is needed, and they are willing to put the money into the research.” Dr Hodgkinson says being involved in an international project like this is hugely beneficial for New Zealand research, as it helps validate and combine research efforts.

“It makes our projects more impactful, and it allows us to do things we couldn’t do ourselves.

“Working with other people that you know are top in the field also confirms that you are going in the right direction.”

Such events also put policy makers and scientists together in one room.

“It’s really good with these kinds of meetings, getting together with policy makers and the scientists. It is plugging the gap.”

Dr Hodgkinson is now part of a committee working towards putting together the protein database on protein quality. The FAO will manage the database. A booklet and policy guidance document will also be produced.