While the quality of nutrition science in the UK remained strong, the basic “mechanistic” understanding of research and its impact on healthier food was beginning to fall behind, according to the review commissioned by the Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research.
The situation was being made more critical by a lack of younger scientists entering the field, while a number of experienced researchers approached retirement, the ‘Review of nutrition and human health research’ found.
On the back of the review, the Medical Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research are to set up a nutrition research partnership to implement its recommendations. The UK Human Nutrition Research Partnership (HNRP) will be made up of experts from academia, health research and industry.
The review found that to truly understand the “nutrition ecosystem”, researchers must work more closely with all sectors of the food industry – including agricultural, retail, food production and packaging.
Rather than being perceived as part of the problem, “industry must be seen as part of the solution”, the review claimed.
“Partnership with the food/nutrition science industry is vital so that research can lead to healthier products and improved nutritional support,” it added.
“The UK has a well-earned reputation for its nutrition research, but we are in danger of falling behind if we don’t consolidate our strengths and build up capacity in key areas,” said Professor Chris Day, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, who chaired the review.
‘Sharing of expertise and resources’
“Working more closely with industry partners will provide opportunities to build capacity in the field, enhance the sharing of expertise and resources, and ensure that excellent nutrition science is available to all.”
The UK HNRP also planned to focus on the “tougher scientific challenges” of linking cohort studies to interventional nutritional research, and linking nutritional epidemiology to mechanistic understanding.
The problem of cohort studies – which can only make observations on possible associations with diet and health – was highlighted by review team member and British Nutrition Foundation chair of the board of trustees Professor Christine Williams earlier this year.
In March, Williams, who is also professor of human nutrition and pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Reading, said cohort studies “can never provide definitive proof that diet causes a specific disease”. She added that intervention studies were needed to find associations.