Optimising nutrient release from plant-based foods
Our research is focused on understanding how the structure of plant-based foods is broken down during digestive transit to release nutrients.
By studying how plant-derived structures are physically and biochemically disassembled during their passage through the gastrointestinal tract, we can find new ways to control and optimise nutrient release from plant-derived foods. Working with the food sector, we will use this new understanding to develop healthier food products and future foods, designed to counter health problems such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Plant-derived foods such as cereals, tubers, pulses, fruits and vegetables are rich in essential micro- and macro- nutrients and are an important part of a healthy diet. The cell walls of these plant-based foods are also the main source of dietary fibre, and are important for digestion, gut health and the microbiome. Plant-based foods are inherently nutritious, but to what extent the nutrients contained in these foods are released (‘bioaccessible’) and absorbed during digestion is dependent on the structure of the food matrix.
With improved understanding of plant food structure digestion it will be possible to tailor nutrient release profiles of foods to meet the needs of specific consumer groups. We work closely with the food sector and contribute with scientific solutions to support the development of healthier food products. For example, we are currently using new scientific knowledge to develop natural food ingredients that will reduce the glycaemic response in foods, particularly for people with type 2 diabetes. A similar approach may be taken to increase protein and micronutrients uptake from locally grown crops (particularly pulses) in regions where nutritional deficiencies are common.
Understanding the relationship between plant-derived food structures, digestion and health requires a multi-disciplinary approach. We use physical and biochemical techniques from the food and plant sciences in the context of nutritional biochemistry and digestive physiology. The group has particular expertise in developing in vitro model systems that simulate human digestion, and uses various models to systematically study the digestion and breakdown of complex food structures, particularly those rich in starch. These laboratory studies provide a mechanistic understanding of the results of human studies, where we measure the effect of particular food structures on postprandial metabolism or other specific health outcomes.