COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ohio State University researchers are joining forces to create a one-of-a-kind research institute addressing nutrition and food safety from the farm to the plate.
More than thirty-five researchers from the colleges of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, Human Ecology, Veterinary Medicine, and Medicine and Public Health are integrating agriculture, food systems, nutrition and medicine into the Ohio Bionutrition and Food Safety Research Institute.
Tammy Bray, associate dean of the College of Human Ecology and project coordinator, said the purpose is to bring together researchers from several areas of discipline to work toward a similar goal. "Our objective is to have people working collaboratively in cutting edge areas to come up with innovative projects and ideas. We want researchers to think outside the box, away from the traditional means of doing science." The institute represents one of eight focus areas recognized recently by the university and approved by President William Kirwan to help build OSU's reputation on a national and international level.
"This is a great chance for us to establish what we've been trying to accomplish for many years," said Ahmed Yousef of the Department of Food Science and Technology, and the coordinator of the food safety team. "This gives us an opportunity to be a leading food safety center while building close ties with nutrition experts." Yousef said the link between bionutrition and food safety is indirect but crucial to overall human health. "If whatever process you created to make food safe doesn't provide people with any nutritional value, then you are not providing the consumers any service," he said.
Bray added that most people don't even realize that bionutrition and food safety are interwined at the microbiological level. "For example, how does nutrition affect microorganisms in the large intestine? What does the intestine do to absorb those nutrients, and how do we know that it's good for us?" she said.
The answers to such questions have their origin in agriculture, where studies of probiotics in animals are helping to make foods safer and more nutritious. Probiotics are naturally occurring beneficial microorganisms that live in the intestinal tract of animals and humans and maintain health by fighting illness and disease and by inhibiting the growth of pathogenic bacteria.
One such probiotic currently being studied is conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, a fatty acid found in ruminants that is a potent cancer fighter. OSU animal science researchers are studying ways to increase CLA in dairy and meat products.
"I think that this research institute and what we'll be contributing to it is very important as more people move away from farming and rural areas," said Jeff Firkins, an OSU animal science researcher. "Surveys have shown that people are not very knowledgeable about food issues. We see our role as educating the public and providing them with the kind of information they need to distinguish between what is fact and what may be mere perception." The study of probiotics, prebiotics (foods or nutrients utilized by bacteria that can be added to a diet to increase the chances of those bacteria thriving in the intestine) and neutraceuticals are seen as opportunities to provide natural ways to improve human health. "Our intent at OSU is to better understand what sort of naturally occurring ingredients found in foods or fermented food products can be used to promote health and well-being," said Mark Morrison, an OSU animal science researcher.
In addition to research in probiotics and prebiotics, the institute will also house research projects on pathogenic organisms, such as Salmonella, Escherichia coli, Listeria and Campylobacter. Said Yousef, "This research institute is different than any other that has been created. It broadens the perspective of food safety from on the farm to the home, while most food safety centers only focus on what happens to pathogens while food is being processed." Processing and health problems associated with pathogenic organisms cost the food industry $8.5 billion a year. Roughly 20 percent of the population suffers from pathogen-related illnesses with about 5,000 deaths occurring each year.
"Everyone deserves a nutritious, safe and inexpensive supply of food. To ensure that, we need to work together across college boundaries and make high-impact discoveries for a common cause," said Morrison.
The Ohio Bionutrition and Food Safety Research Institute is in its early stages of development. Participating colleges have requested funding to build the institute, which will be housed in Vivian Hall on the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences campus. Ohio State has provided $200,000 toward the institute and its research activities. The University of Cincinnati's College of Medicine, Case Western Reserve University's College of Medicine, Ross Products Division, Abbott Laboratories, Procter & Gamble, and M&M Mars Internationals Inc. are also involved in the project.