Excellent Research

Essential personalized nutrition project

New facility plays an important role in research project

We all know that fruit and vegetables are good for us. But which types? And which combinations and quantities? Researchers and entrepreneurs at the Brightlands Campuses want to find an answer to these questions in the coming years. A new facility at the Greenport Campus in Venlo, the Nutritional Concepts Lab [NCL], will play an important role in these efforts. The ultimate goal is to design a sophisticated, individual diet for everyone. “Personalized nutrition instead of medicine.”

Vegetables and fruit: the new medicine
As a scientist, Prof. Dr. Theo de Kok has both feet firmly planted on the ground. As a toxicologist affiliated with Maastricht MUMC+, research claiming that blueberries are “healthy” doesn’t mean that much to him. “Blueberries contain 1,500 substances, not all of which have properties with a positive effect on cells and DNA. Lab testing has shown this. But that doesn’t mean that they are beneficial for people by definition. Genetic factors play a major role, as do all the other substances that people ingest. Substances influence one another and can magnify effects or reduce them; the outcome is different for everyone. It is even possible for healthy components to have negative effects. This is the case with some vitamin preparations, for example. An overdose can cause them to accumulate in the body, resulting in damage. This is why it’s so hard to make health claims. The long-term effects on chronic illnesses are very difficult to prove.”

Although the professor may be very matter-of-fact, at the same time he is hyper-focused on his ambition to figure out what people’s ideal diet would be. Which foods help slow ageing, keep us healthy longer and even make the use of medicine unnecessary? This is why, together with his professional group, he is one of the driving forces behind the NCL, a facility which is expected to be erected at the Brightlands Campus in Venlo in just a few months. Within the walls of this 13-meter high structure, vegetables and fruits will be processed into concentrates. Financed by the Province of Limburg, the structure will cost 700,000 Euros to build. In producing these concentrates, the water will be extracted from the products during a short process, ensuring a minimal loss of active ingredients. The final product is a powder or crunchy morsel that can be added to daily meals. All the healthy ingredients will be retained during the closed process since it doesn’t require high temperatures. “This is convenient and makes it so much easier for us to get our daily required intake of 400 grams of fruit and vegetables. We are certain that it’s healthy, generally speaking. What we don’t know is exactly how it works. The morsels may be consumed as a type of muesli or snack between meals. The powder may be used as a raw material for the food printers that are currently being developed. It’s the perfect way to ensure you get the minimum portion of fruit and vegetables.”

This is naturally a potentially interesting project for food producers, and also the reason that entrepreneurs are involved. In the long term, it can be lucrative if an entrepreneur can claim that his compressed spinach pearls prevent arthrosis. Theo de Kok smiles. “Maybe,” he says, “but this isn’t the goal for now, not even for the entrepreneurs involved. We want to study what the exact effects are if someone adds one or more of these concentrates to their diet every day for a certain period of time. It’s a starting point. We are starting out with a few simple foodstuffs, and varying them. We are studying the effects on the body, and are also doing tests in vitro at the laboratory. It is definitely a long and time-consuming project. After all, there are so many foodstuffs to study, thousands in fact, and then we need to find out how they influence one another. You have to start somewhere. We are laying the foundations here at the Brightlands Campuses in Limburg. In Maastricht, we are conducting lab tests and clinical trials, and in cooperation with the campus in Heerlen, we are processing the data. The Geleen campus is playing a role in supplying the carriers for the blood samples that are used to determine effectiveness. In Venlo, we are producing the foodstuffs, so the NCL is absolutely essential in this picture.”

It may sound like painstaking work, but the professor isn’t afraid to dream and look to the future. “Little by little, we are unravelling the ideal diet for every person. In the not-too-distant future, we will be able to say with more precision which substances are good or bad for which people. You can already have your DNA passport made up with just one drop of blood. This passport says which health risks you are susceptible to and which substances exclude those risks. One day you will be able to go to the supermarket and have this passport scanned and you will get the exact food you need. In other words, personalized nutrition instead of medicine. As a toxicologist, I am mainly studying the mechanisms that determine the balance between the healthiness and toxicity of substances. Personalized nutrition is the future. It will also mean an affordable future since we will stay healthy longer, and won’t need to go to doctors, the hospital or the pharmacy as often.”

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