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Dr Nessa Noronha

Director, Food for Health Ireland

With the demand for more affordable, nutritious, and sustainable food forecast to grow, researchers and industry are developing food products and ingredients with added health benefits to promote wellness.

Nowadays, we are savvier about the quality of the food we eat and the impact it can have on our bodies. “Over the last decade, there has been a heightened awareness among consumers about the importance of good, nutritious food,” agrees Dr Nessa Noronha, Director of Food for Health Ireland, a national scientific research organisation dedicated to improving health through innovation in food and ingredients.  

More consumers want ‘functional’ food with added health benefits 

“There’s an increasing realisation that ‘you are what you eat,’ and the foods we eat have direct implications for our health and wellness,” says Dr Noronha. A growing number of consumers are looking to proactively manage their health, especially those focused on specific needs — immunity, energy, digestion — through their diet. It’s no wonder the ‘functional foods’ (another way of saying ‘food with added health benefits’) sector is forecast to be worth more than €450 billion by 2028.  

As we’re all living longer, it’s good to know that healthy food can also promote healthy ageing. “The demand for nutritional solutions to support healthy and active ageing is growing,” reveals Dr Noronha.  

“That stands to reason because we want to sustain our bodies so that they are fit in our later years, and food plays an enormous role in that. Consumers are seeking a more holistic approach to healthy ageing, where they are focused on balancing physical, mental and emotional aspects. Nutritional solutions that support both physical and emotional wellbeing are thriving and can target the needs of different generations.” 

We create value for companies, either from
their existing ingredient portfolio or
with new, bespoke solutions.

Translating research into commercially viable products  

Because consumers are demanding healthier, more nutritious food, companies are — naturally enough — very keen to supply it. Food for Health Ireland, backed by Enterprise Ireland and food companies, is hosted at University College Dublin and translates research from its network of universities, academics and experts into commercially viable products for numerous food industry firms.  

Projects have included the metabolic and cardiovascular health benefits of Irish grass-fed cheese with a focus on natural functionality; developing fermented ingredients to enhance digestive comfort using state-of-the-art bioconversion technologies. They have also worked on specific solutions for individual companies; for example, providing evidence-based research to support ingredients that can alleviate knee pain and lower blood glucose levels. 

“We create value for companies, either from their existing ingredient portfolio or with new, bespoke solutions,” says Dr Noronha. “Many of them don’t have expertise around, for example, cell culture research or human intervention-based studies, so they come to us. The research we do for firms is very market-focused and collaborative. It’s also consumer-driven.”  

Positioning Ireland as a global leader in functional foods.

Creating food innovation to help improve human health 

Food for Health Ireland often brings market competitors together to collaborate on a shared vision. That’s unusual, but it works, explains Dr Noronha. “They see the value of working together on pre-competitive projects because they can achieve much more. For example, Kerry, Tirlán (formerly known as Glanbia Ireland), Carbery and Dairygold worked together on a pre-competitive programme to support sustainable Irish grass-fed dairy production.” 

The demand for more affordable, nutritious and sustainable food is only going to grow. “Personalised nutrition is going to be key,” she adds. “So, companies have the opportunity to personalise nutrition solutions for the mass market. The latest technology will come into play, too, with firms in the sector utilising AI and machine learning to predict the best food combinations that will help support a better life.” 

“Then there’s the field of using artificial means — such as precision fermentation — to generate food and ingredients. How consumers will respond to it and what regulations will surround it are different questions, so we keep a close eye on that. But there’s no doubt that this fast-moving, ever-changing sector can improve human health.” Dr Noronha concludes.  

Since 2008, Food for Health Ireland has created a unique innovation ecosystem that supports innovation in foods and ingredients with health benefits, supporting companies from concept to consumer. 

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