Kerry scientist discusses food-as-medicine trend as nutritional immunology gains ground
16 Apr 2021 --- “You are what you eat” broadly holds true relating to the immune system, says Dr. Sonja Nodland, research, development & acquisition principal scientist, Wellmune immune biomarker research at Kerry.
However, she maintains it would be “premature” to say that everything we eat directly affects the immune system.
In an exclusive conversation with NutritionInsight, Nodland reveals the complex interactions of diet and immunity, contradictions against the food-as-medicine trend and how scientific substantiation is the cornerstone behind supplementation.
The science of staying healthy
Nutritional immunology – a field of research on how diets and diseases affect the development and function of the immune system – is gaining prominence for several reasons.
“The first is a growing appreciation that many molecules in food have effects on the body beyond providing the energy and necessary vitamins and minerals needed to sustain life,” Nodland explains.
New scientific and computational techniques have further begun to reveal the nuanced interactions of the immune system with foods in ways that weren’t possible decades ago.
“This has made it possible to ask – and begin to properly answer – some of the fundamental questions about the way our diets shape our immune systems.”
Diet-immunity link in the making
The interactions between diet and immunity occur at many molecular and cellular levels across the body. On the one hand, Nodland points to “very clear examples” of nutrients having a direct effect on the immune system.
“For example, polysaccharide beta-glucans and vitamin D act as immunomodulators,” she highlights.
“On the other hand, there are also other components of our diet that indirectly affect the immune system. Starches, for example, seem to influence the gut microbiome and gut barrier.”
More research is needed to fully confirm the effect of food choices on immune health, especially as the science surrounding gut microbiome expands.
Food for preventative, not reactive care
Running in parallel with the pandemic-heightened immune health trend is the perception of “food as medicine.”
The wider idea is to use food to address a host of chronic diseases. For example, the US National Institutes of Health awarded a US$2.9 million grant for “food as medicine” research last September to use medically tailored meals as an effective health care intervention for diabetes.
As the boundaries between food and medicine begin to blur, Nodland flags the crucial distinction remains that food generally doesn’t deliver a quick fix.
“A medical intervention is often a reactive solution for a disease or injury – a silver bullet fixing something that’s gone wrong. By contrast, food is the source of essential energy and nutrients – the framework to sustain life.”
“The industry has a responsibility to help consumers understand that diet and nutrition are all about making healthy choices for the long term and that the benefits will only be seen over a long timescale,” Nodland highlights.
Consequences of food as medicine trend
In terms of nutritional immunology, Nodland warns no single food or diet can completely prevent either communicable or non-communicable diseases.
“One risk [of viewing food as medicine] would be a consumer expectation of dramatic results from dietary changes over a short period of time,” she details.
“This is unrealistic and can lead to the premature abandonment of healthy dietary regimes. Would you abandon your immune health support ingredient the first time you get a cold?”
However, there are certain advantages of the food-as-medicine trend viewpoint as well. “It might encourage healthier dietary choices, pushing consumers to seek out foods that naturally contain or are fortified with health-supporting ingredients.”
According to Innova’s Consumer Survey 2020, six out of ten global consumers are increasingly looking for F&B products that support their immune health. One in three say their concerns about immune health increased in 2020 over 2019.
Regardless of preventative or reactive, food for immune support is unlikely to succeed if it takes a one-size-fits-all approach.
There is a growing understanding – as evidenced by Innova’s top F&B trend Tailored to Fit – that “healthy” is a tricky concept because people are all different, says Nodland.
“There is huge variability, even between healthy individuals. What is healthy for one person is not necessarily healthy for another,” she continues.
“For example, a microbiome that promoted weight loss would be beneficial and healthy in the context of an obese individual but could be detrimental to survival in others.”
Scientific backing can sustain positive health practices
This “big shift” in consumers’ growing awareness of personalization is surging demand for scientific evidence supporting an immune health product.
According to Kerry’s Global Consumer Survey, Digestive & Immune Health (2019), half of US consumers reported conducting their own research on the ingredients and benefits of healthy lifestyle products.
“The key here is scientific substantiation. If the choice is based on strong evidence, there will be a benefit if the choice is sustained,” Nodland affirms.
“When products are properly positioned, highlighting genuine science-backed benefits proven by high-quality studies, they can achieve a real impact by making healthy choices more convenient, accessible and appealing,” she concludes.
By Anni Schleicher
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