To develop a portfolio of case studies that provide robust evidence to UK industry on the role of specific plant-based food components in cognitive and mental health across the lifespan.
The STAR Hub is industry-facing and, initially, our focus is on challenge areas involving polyphenols, fibre and resistant starch, alternative plant protein sources and the improvement of existing or novel plant-based foods. Over time we will expand to include other key areas, for example, specific micronutrients (vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron) that may be lacking in plant-based products.
Hub members from academia and industry will work together to generate new products and to increase the profitability and sustainability of existing products. Our aim is to consolidate the activities of communities working on novel plant-based products and to highlight opportunities for UK-based industry to exploit this evidence through further research and development, involving academia and, in particular, through training of early career researchers (ECRs), to ultimately produce innovative plant-based products, services and systems that are targeted and tailored to specific life stages to improve and maintain cognitive and mental health across the life-course.
STAR Hub Challenge Areas
Role of Polyphenols in maintaining metabolic, cognitive and mental health
Evidence highlighting the benefits of dietary polyphenols to human health has expanded significantly over the last decade. Polyphenols from various food sources (blueberries, cocoa, coffee/tea amongst others) have been associated with a number of health benefits, including reduced risk of cardiometabolic conditions and type-2 diabetes, better cognitive ageing and improved mental health (Fraga et al., 2019). Increased consumption of polyphenol-rich foods could, therefore, produce significant benefits throughout the lifespan. We encourage collaboration with our industry partners in the following areas:
- The multifaceted mechanisms of action of different polyphenol sub-groups leading to the maintenance of metabolic and cognitive health across the life-course;
- Providing policy-makers with robust evidence to establish dietary guidelines and recommendations for polyphenol intakes and flavonoid-rich foods (Kristi M Crowe-White et al., 2022);
- Establish the diversity of bioactive metabolites from (dietary) polyphenol exposure and ascertain how these relate to mechanism(s) of action for specified health outcomes;
- “Targeted” polyphenol-rich solutions for school-aged children and older adults.
Action on Fibre and Resistant Starch
Strong evidence from observational studies shows that populations with high intake of plant-based, fibre rich diets or those whose dietary patterns are characterised as being high in plant foods have greater protection against developing chronic disease. Currently, only 9% of adults in the UK are estimated to meet the recommended intake for fibre (Harris et al., 2022), making fibre a nutrient of concern across the life-course. Importantly, adequate dietary fibre intake is associated with a number of physiological health benefits, including improved cardiometabolic risk, reduce energy intake via increased satiety, and favourable modulation of gut microbiota (Nicola M McKeown et al., 2022). A number of industrial members of the Food & Drink Federation (FDF) are participating in the Federation’s ‘Action on Fibre’ initiative, and we are keen to engage with these members and other stakeholders, inviting them to support our Hub activities in the following industry-ready areas:
- Bridging the “fibre” gap: plant-based approaches to align intakes to dietary recommendations;
- Contribution of different dietary fibres (soluble, insoluble, (non)fermentable) and resistant starch to a healthier microbiome across the life-course;
- Fibre and resistant starch, the microbiota-gut-brain axis and cognitive health across the life-course;
- Generating evidence on the relative health benefits of plant-based and artificial fibres;
- Providing the food industry with robust evidence for food fortification and reformulation to increase the fibre content of their products.
Nutritional adequacy of alternative, sustainable proteins across the life-span
Protein is an important macronutrient that we need for growth, repair and maintenance in the body. As a result, our protein needs change across the life course. It is important to include a range of protein-containing foods and we are encouraged to eat more plant- and fungi-derived protein foods. The idea of processing plant/fungi-based ingredients to obtain protein-based foods is not a new concept, but plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs) can differ widely in terms of nutrition profile/adequacy, the food category and ingredients. Despite these variations, the increasing availability of PBMAs, particularly in Western countries, highlights a promising global trend to support the transition toward a more plant-based diet. Our Hub activities are, thus, focused on:
- Nutritional education programmes to improve consumers’ knowledge and awareness of the differences between animal- and plant/fungi-based products, including potential impacts on health and the environment;
- Novel strategies to encourage meat eaters to adopt more plant-based diets;
- Monitoring the nutritional quality of existing and new plant/fungi-based ‘meat’ products and the impact of this substitution on human health markers;
- Generating novel and sustainable bioactive protein ingredients from low-value underutilised sources.
Improving the nutritional, health and sustainability profile of existing or novel plant/fungi-based foods
Interest in plant-based diets has grown significantly in recent years, with vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets becoming ever more popular. Ensuring nutritional adequacy, particularly with respect to micronutrients, remains a significant concern in any restricted diet and it remains unclear as how best to incorporate more plant-based substitutes into our diet whilst maintaining sufficient intakes of key nutrients. For example, plant-based milks (soy, coconut, oat, pea, etc.) differ considerably from normal milk in terms of nutritional content and thus their suitability for specific population groups may be questionable. Another key challenge of our time is that certain nutrients (for example, protein and specific vitamins) that have important functional roles for older people are derived from food groups for which sustainability scores are low, and which therefore may not be favourable to the environment. Therefore, our Hub activities are centred around:
- Providing the food industry with robust evidence for reformulation based on nutritional needs appropriate for different age groups (e.g., plant-based milks for children);
- Addressing the issue that (highly processed) plant-based foods can be high in salt, sugar or saturated fat;
- Addressing the dual challenge of sustainability and meeting nutritional needs at critical stages of the lifecycle.
Become a member of the STAR Hub
Membership is free and open to any organisation, of any size, anywhere in the world, that can demonstrate a strategic commitment to collaborative research and innovation.