Scientists seek to boost health of Asians by modifying food

Research here is ramping up to improve the health of Asians by using a new type of medicine - food.

There are 18 studies being conducted by researchers from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) looking at ways in which food could be modified to improve blood glucose control.

One of the studies aims to find out if modifying the texture of certain food ingredients can alter the way the food is absorbed and metabolised in the body.

Dr Tan Sze Yen, a senior research fellow at A*Star's Clinical Nutrition Research Centre and one of the researchers in the study, said the aim of the research is to find out if modifying the properties of food can help to maximise the health benefits.

This is done by changing the texture of certain ingredients - such as cooking oil - and observing the effects this change has on digestion. Cooking oil can be modified into a gel-like form by adding fibre.

"We are trying to see if, for example, baking bread with this gel oil will result in maximising the health properties (of bread)," Dr Tan said.

The whole body calorimeter is a room that measures the energy expenditure of the person being studied. Studies conducted in the room typically last for up to eight hours, although some can go on for 48 hours.
The whole body calorimeter is a room that measures the energy expenditure of the person being studied. Studies conducted in the room typically last for up to eight hours, although some can go on for 48 hours. PHOTO: A*STAR

Dr Sumanto Haldar, a senior research fellow at the nutrition research centre, is involved in a study of the role of spices in improving blood glucose control.

"We are specifically looking at food groups that have been shown in other populations to improve cardiometabolic health," he said.

"Spices... are another of those food groups which we think is going to be beneficial."

Dr Tan added that while the ability of these foods to increase energy and burn fat has been demonstrated, the long-term effects are unknown.

"Future studies are needed to confirm if these effects can be translated into actual weight and body fat loss when these foods are consumed over a longer period of time," he said.

Dr Haldar elaborated on the reasons for conducting such research. He said that the high-carbohydrate Asian diet, coupled with poor blood glucose control, makes Asians three times more susceptible to Type 2 diabetes than Caucasians.

"Given that Asians respond rather differently to dietary intake than Caucasians, it is imperative to undertake nutrition research specifically in Asians to cater for the needs of the Asian phenotype (observable properties) and the Asian palate," he said.

State-of-the-art facilities are being used in the food and nutrition research.

One such facility is the whole body calorimeter - a room that measures the energy expenditure of the person being studied. Two such rooms - the first in Asia - belong to the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre and are shared by A*Star.

"The principle of measurement is very simple. We measure how much oxygen they use and how much carbon dioxide they produce," explained Dr Tan.

"Through these two simple measures, we can tell how much energy the person is burning and what source of energy he is using."

Studies conducted in the room typically last for up to eight hours, although some can go on for 48 hours. The airtight room is furnished like a small hotel room, with a bed, desk, computer, television and toilet.

More details on the various food and nutrition studies will be shared at organised talks by Dr Haldar and Dr Tan at the inaugural one-north Festival to be held on Aug 5 and 6.

Organised by A*Star and JTC Corporation, the festival will involve 35 groups and focus on the culture of research, innovation, creativity and enterprise within the one- north precinct.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2016, with the headline 'Scientists seek to boost health of Asians by modifying food'. Print Edition | Subscribe