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“Scientific substantiation is an integral part of marketing communications”

Published: 06-09-2016, | Member: Nutreco / Nutreco R&D

Supporting health benefits and claims are vital in the business of animal and pediatric nutrition. Reason enough for Mead Johnson Nutrition (MJN) and Trouw Nutrition to invest strongly in fundamental research. Their shared ambitions were the drive behind the Immunoforce (2012-2015) project. “We significantly improved our understanding of how nutrition affects the development and activity of the immune system, and developed models and tools to accelerate product development”, say Ric van Tol and Mark Bouwens.

In the first months after birth, the immune system of humans and animals is developing rapidly. Newborns, whether animals or children, do not yet have a fully developed immune system, and are vulnerable, for example to infections of the gastrointestinal tract or the lungs.

“We know that good nutrition is essential in the development of the immune system but, as yet, we do not completely understand how this works”, explains Mark Bouwens, Senior Researcher at Trouw Nutrition R&D. “More-detailed insights could help us to develop specialized products that improve the health and welfare of livestock and allow substantial reduction in antibiotics use.” 

The interest of Mead Johnson Nutrition (MJN), who specialize in infant nutrition and milk for toddlers, starts – just like Trouw’s – early in life. “Nutrition in the pre- and early postnatal developmental stages appears to have a great impact on health and disease risk later in life. This not only involves immune development, but also affects gut microbiological composition and metabolism” says Ric van Tol, Director Global R&D at MJN.

The company is also investing in better understanding human milk composition and functionality: when mothers cannot breastfeed or decide not to, we need to provide infant nutrition that more closely resembles mother’s milk in terms of nutritional value and biological functionality. “In this context we study the interaction between nutrition, the microbiome, metabolism and immunity, thus guiding the development of formulations that can support resistance to infections, a major theme within the Immunoforce Project.”

Leading research groups
In order to enhance product development, Trouw and MJN decided to collaborate with a number of leading research groups. “If you intend to make proper health claims, you need to understand exactly how nutrition affects the immune system”, explains Bouwens. “This requires multidisciplinary research which is prohibitively expensive and impossible for individual companies.” Van Tol: “What helped was that there were overlapping interests – understanding the early development of the immune system in animals and infants, and how we could support resistance to infections with specific nutrients – yet we are not direct competitors.”

The Immunoforce Project, supported by the EU (European Fund for Regional Development), combined product and technological expertise and ideas with fundamental science. Four research groups were involved: Wageningen University, Utrecht University, UMCN Radboud (Nijmegen) and NIZO food research (Ede).

A large number of food ingredients were studied at the level of microbiota and single immune cells, in organs, and in animal experiments with mice and piglets. Different challenge models were used, as well as viral-bacterial co-infection models. “We know that infants sometimes suffer from viral infections that do not make them very sick but undermine their immune defenses, thus increasing susceptibility to more life-threatening bacterial infections”, explains Van Tol. Effects of selected nutrients on these co-infections, for example, were studied in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts.

Better insight
After completion of the project Bouwens and Van Tol are looking back with satisfaction. “We gained better insight into how nutrition affects the immune system and a group of quite promising ‘immune enhancing’ food ingredients has been identified for further product development”, says Bouwens. “A different benefit of this broader partnership is the valuable knowledge and technology network that we developed during the project. This will support future collaborations; if not with the entire consortium, then certainly in bilateral collaborative research projects”, adds van Tol.

The two expect health-claims regulations to become stricter than ever. “It will become more challenging to get health claims approved and, ultimately, you need to prove clinical effects in the identified target group for your products. Solid mechanistic substantiation and proof of principle in translational animal modes – such as we worked towards in this project – do help, fortunately”, says Van Tol.

Level playing field
Also, the freedom food manufacturers currently enjoy to communicate with medical professionals and consumers will be further limited, with strong restrictions on product information as well as packaging and visual design. Unfortunately this also implies that relevant information on ingredients, their mechanisms of action and health benefits cannot be shared. Van Tol: “A pity, because, in the end, consumers benefit from being well-informed. We are in a dialogue with health and regulatory organizations about this issue.”

Regulation and opportunities
Similarly to human nutrition, health-claim regulations are also becoming stricter in animal nutrition. But this will also provide opportunities, Bouwens believes. “In animal nutrition there has been the freedom to make functional claims, as long as the feed product is not said to cure, treat or prevent disease. Nowadays, when feed companies make functional claims – within this window of allowed feed claims – they must have substantiation before they market the product; authorities may come and check this proof. Companies that invest in innovative research stand out in the market. By adding high quality research within the field, we are helping development of this area, and at the same time creating ideas and opportunities for novel applications and products.”

Both Van Tol and Bouwens are looking to the future with confidence: “We believe we have the right focus and great research partners and can make a real difference in the future of both animal and human health.”

Trouw Nutrition/Nutreco
Mead Johnson: Immunoforce