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Research for food and health in Europe: themes, needs and proposals

Author(s): McCarthy Mark | Aitsi-Selmi Amina | Bánáti Diána | Frewer Lynn | Hirani Vasant | Lobstein Tim | McKenna Brian | Mulla Zenab | Rabozzi Giulia | Sfetcu Raluca | Newton Rachel

Journal: Health Research Policy and Systems
ISSN 1478-4505

Volume: 9;
Issue: 1;
Start page: 37;
Date: 2011;
Original page

Abstract Background Diet, in addition to tobacco, alcohol and physical exercise, is a major factor contributing to chronic diseases in Europe. There is a pressing need for multidisciplinary research to promote healthier food choices and better diets. Food and Health Research in Europe (FAHRE) is a collaborative project commissioned by the European Union. Among its tasks is the description of national research systems for food and health and, in work reported here, the identification of strengths and gaps in the European research base. Methods A typology of nine research themes was developed, spanning food, society, health and research structures. Experts were selected through the FAHRE partners, with balance for individual characteristics, and reported using a standardised template. Results Countries usually commission research on food, and on health, separately: few countries have combined research strategies or programmes. Food and health are also strongly independent fields within the European Commission's research programmes. Research programmes have supported food and bio-technology, food safety, epidemiological research, and nutritional surveillance; but there has been less research into personal behaviour and very little on environmental influences on food choices - in the retail and marketing industries, policy, and regulation. The research is mainly sited within universities and research institutes: there is relatively little published research contribution from industry. Discussion National food policies, based on epidemiological evidence and endorsed by the World Health Organisation, recommend major changes in food intake to meet the challenge of chronic diseases. Biomedical and biotechnology research, in areas such as 'nutrio-genomics', 'individualised' diets, 'functional' foods and 'nutri-pharmaceuticals' appear likely to yield less health benefit, and less return on public investment, than research on population-level interventions to influence dietary patterns: for example policies to reduce population consumption of trans fats, saturated fats, salt and energy density. Research should now address how macro-diets, rather than micro-nutritional content, can be improved for beneficial impacts on health, and should evaluate the impact of market changes and policy interventions, including regulation, to improve public health. Conclusions European and national research on food and health should have social as well as commercial benefits. Strategies and policies should be developed between ministries of health and national research funding agencies. Collaboration between member states in the European Union can yield better innovation and greater competitive advantage.
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