Supported by the Irish government via Enterprise Ireland and headquartered at University College Cork, Food for Health Ireland (FHI) is a unique partnership between four of Ireland’s major dairy processing companies (Carbery Group, Dairygold Co-operative Society Ltd., Glanbia and Kerry Group plc) and four public research organizations (University College Cork, University College Dublin, Teagasc, Moorepark Food Research Centre, and Univeristy of Limerick). The partnership aims to determine how milk ingredients can be extracted and used to deliver health benefits for consumers, with the research arm providing the pipeline for new functional food ingredient and product development and the dairy processing companies maximizing the bioactives from milk proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
According to Jens Bleiel, FHI’s CEO, FHI is concentrating on finding nutritional solutions to some of the most pressing health issues related to early infant development, obesity, diabetes, immunity/infection and heart health. Each of the four health issues were assigned to the FHI research organization that specializes in that particular area of study, all of which are employing “sophisticated cell- and 'omics'- based technologies” to identify fractions with potential bioactivity and to clarify their mechanism(s) of action for each health concern.
Mr. Bleiel said the partnership is committed to scientifically testing and clinically validating the efficacy of their discoveries in model systems and human intervention studies to ensure they meet the requirements of EU regulations on nutrition and health claims.
“These major health pillars each make a significant contribution to global morbidity and mortality rates, as well as having a substantial impact on health service costs,” he explained. “As such, large food companies have a keen interest in the ability of food to address these issues. By focusing on the world’s most pressing health issues FHI can improve wellness and quality of life and enhance the future commercial benefits of the research.”
FHI has two main research platforms: a mining platform, where milk is deconstructed to generate a pipeline of milk components which are funnelled into a health platform that tests these components for bioactivity. “Our Intelligent Milk Mining initiative brings together a number of diverse research tools including protein chemistry, enzyme hydrolysis, fermentation, microbiology and bioinformatics to systematically deconstruct milk,” explained Mr. Bleiel. “This innovative mix of technologies is already generating a high quantity of new hydrolysates and peptides which may have the capacity to positively impact on human health.”
The bioactive elements of milk are “mined” when constituent proteins are “systematically deconstructed”—broken down into peptides and hydrolysates using either enzymes or food-grade lactic acid bacteria. “The resulting fractions are then identified and assessed for potential bioactivity and their mechanism(s) of action,” he said. “Additionally, our bioinformatics team is using the Bovine Genome to ‘intelligently’ search the milk for potential bioactives. The combined effect of the enzymatic/ hydrolysis and bioinformatic approaches enables FHI to generate a higher number of bioactive peptides, as well as ensuring the mining process is exhaustive.”
In total, the mining process will explore protein chemistry, milk fractionation and separation technologies, as well as microbiology and bioinformatics tools, to provide fractions for delivery.
The mining team is supported by additional programs relating to process scale-up, formulation of food with the bioactives, human intervention, consumer and regulatory affairs and industry training/outreach.
Mr. Bleiel said that the initial focus of FHI’s Intelligent Milk Mining is on the extraction of proteins. “We anticipate that a number of novel bioactive peptides or protein hydrolysates will emerge from our research,” he said. “As part of the long-term plans, the mining program will be extended to investigate the carbohydrate and lipid components of milk.”
Preparing the bioactives for use in food formulations—and ensuring the bioactives remain bioavailable—is another challenge FHI researchers are addressing. FHI’s researchers, under the direction of Professor Dolores O Riordan at University College Dublin, are developing encapsulation techniques to incorporate milk-derived bioactives in food and to test their stability when subjected to typical food technology processes.
Mr. Bleiel said that the applications that result from FHI’s multi-disciplined work will be tailor-made only for areas where there is “real demand.” “With this in mind, we aim to develop functional ingredients that can be integrated into food products or can be formulated into a dietary supplement or beverage,” he said. “Through our formulation work package we also intend to formulate new food concepts and encapsulation technology for functional ingredients.”
Though he declined to specify when FHI expected to see the fruits of its research, Mr. Bleiel affirmed that Food for Health Ireland is a long-term research project. “Our unique and close alliance with our industry partners will enable us to apply our competencies to existing food products or concepts. This will deliver short- to medium-term commercial health benefits,” he concluded.