Food technology: Fundamental and applied science should go hand in hand

Over the past decade, intestinal health and microbiota have become a major interest for food technologists. Emerging insights, into the possible role of the microbiota in the body’s immune system and metabolism, have led to exciting research questions. How might dietary carbohydrates affect the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract? What type of carbohydrate should a prebiotic contain to be really effective?

Answering these questions requires long-term, multidisciplinary research in which fundamental and applied science go hand in hand. The Netherlands is addressing this challenge via public-private partnerships such as the Carbohydrate Competence Center (CCC). We are delving deeply into the structure/function relationships of carbohydrates and are developing advanced methods to assess their health effects. We also work on the sustainable conversion and processing of carbohydrates: how to produce cheap, fermentable sugars from biomass and how to process them into innovative products, for example in the areas of biochemicals, biomaterials and bioenergy?

Demand driven
The CCC, led by the University of Groningen, is the only consortium in the world that conducts carbohydrate research with a precompetitive, demand-driven approach. We bring together industries with research questions and link them with the high-level research groups best-equipped to answer their questions. Industrial partners contribute 50% of the overall project costs and the CCC ensures the remaining finance via regional, national and international government funding. Since its establishment, in 2009, CCC research has provided several hard leads – including nine patents – for industrial innovation in the areas of healthy nutrition and the biobased economy. To date, the CCC has invested €17 million in research, which has led to another €28 million being invested in carbohydrates’ R&D by agrifood industries.

Currently, we have 24 projects running, all with promising outcomes. For example, fibre extracted from chicory roots – as a by-product of inulin production – and certain types of modified starch appear to be a sustainable source of dietary fibre. Other projects are shedding new light on the role of carbohydrates in infant and toddler nutrition, such as galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS). It has, for example, been demonstrated that GOS lead to faster recovery of the microbiota after antibiotic treatment (1).

“What we have learned about carbohydrates will have a significant economic and societal impact within a few years”
I expect that what we have learned, so far, about carbohydrates will have a significant economic and societal impact within a few years: the sustainable and cost-efficient production of fibre – a component lacking in the diet of many consumers in western countries – and the development of prebiotics with specific health effects, such as improving immune defence or reducing cholesterol levels. A number of our industrial partners are already close to introducing new products and processes to the market.

I believe that the importance of fundamental, multidisciplinary research, on structure-function relationships, will continue to be crucial to the substantiation of product health claims, especially those involving carbohydrates, and to accelerating innovation in food technology. As a public-private partnership we are continuously exploring opportunities to expand our research portfolio, setting up new projects and establishing new collaborations with research and industrial partners, in the Netherlands and at the European level.”

Prof. Dr. Lubbert Dijkhuizen: Scientific Director at the Carbohydrate Competence Center and the Protein Competence Center

1. Ladirat SE, Schuren FH, Schoterman MH, Nauta A, Gruppen H, Schols HA. (2014) Impact of galacto-oligosaccharides on the gut microbiota composition and metabolic activity upon antibiotic treatment during in vitro fermentation. FEMS Microbiol Ecol. 87(1):41-51.