Innovating through the study of fibre and polyphenols interaction in foods
By Emilie Combet, Senior Lecturer in Nutrition, and Christine Edwards, Professor of Nutritional Physiology
Our research unit has a big interest in polyphenolics and heath. The BLEND project is a 3-year study focusing on the interaction between two important components in our food: dietary fibres and selected polyphenolics (complex molecules as depicted on the left, that protect the plant from a variety of hazards and often make the plant colourful).
Both fibres and polyphenolics are metabolised by our gut bacteria and produce molecules understood to benefit gut health; however, very little is known about the interaction between the two – the BLEND project is investigating this, and is funded by the BBSRC DRINC fund.
Gut and nutrition – underpinning health
Gut health underpins many other physiological functions – and the interaction between food and our gut bacteria is now understood to play a crucial role. We know that in the UK, people do not consume enough fibre (found in wholegrain products, beans and pulses, for example) or much polyphenolics (found in all plant foods). The project is exploring innovatively how to enhance the impact of these compounds in our gut, to reduce the risk of chronic diseases and enhance the health benefits of our diet.
What are dietary fibres?
Dietary fibre include plant-based carbohydrates not digested in the small intestine (unlike starch and simple sugar), plant structural components such as cellulose, lignin. Dietary fibres reach the large intestine where they are broken down by the gut bacteria. Common dietary fibres include pectins, beta-glucans, and inulin.
A particular expertise at the University of Glasgow, Human Nutrition laboratory, is the study of gut metabolism. We are using a combination of laboratory models, short-term studies with human participants, and longer-term feeding studies of the impact of food on health.
Our strength is our ability to deliver research relevant to the food and healthcare sectors, since our expertise spans from food design to health assessment.
What is the science behind the BLEND project?
- The first phase was lab-based. The researchers studied the interactions between a range of different fibres and polyphenolics in vitro, using faecal samples from volunteer donors – this told us a lot about the type of molecules we can expect to see appear after co-fermentation of both types of compounds.
- The second phase involved human participants, who consumed specifically designed foods once, to understand how the body and the gut microbiome break down and utilise the fibre and polyphenolics when these are fed together or independently.
- The final phase is just starting – a 6-week trial will study a food specially designed to test the interaction fibre/polyphenolics in human volunteers. We will collect blood and urine to monitor the impact of the food on health, as well as faecal samples to follow changes in the bacteria inhabiting the gut of our participants – recruitment is open [email us at nutrition.glasgow @ gmail.com quoting “BLEND2 study” to hear more]
Who will be most affected by this study?
With the ageing population and the increased burden of non-communicable diseases, nutrition is increasingly relevant as a strategy to support health. Our research is therefore relevant to industrial partners, but also the public.
An insight into the day-to-day running of the study: did you know that …
A lot of our work involves collecting and processing biological samples – these include urine and faecal samples – this is an aspect which often worries our volunteers (whose participation is anonymised), but the researchers are used to it, and not phased by it!
Who is the BLEND team?
The BLEND project is led by Prof Christine Edwards and Dr Emilie Combet at the University of Glasgow, School of Medicine [Nutrition], Dr Bill Mullen- University of Glasgow, ICAMS, Prof Tom Preston & Dr Douglas Morrison at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Center (SUERC).
The team employs a post-doctoral researcher, Dr Wenjuan Cong, and two research assistants: Ms Vittoria Marinello and Ms Cara Swailes.
Edwards, C.A., Havlik, J. , Cong, W. , Mullen, W. , Preston, T., Morrison, D.J. and Combet, E. (2017) Polyphenols and health: Interactions between fibre, plant polyphenols and the gut microbiota. Nutrition Bulletin, 42(4), pp. 356-360. (doi10.1111/nbu.12296) – free/open access