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Researchers at the University of Limerick (UL) have developed a new step-by-step guide to designing functional foods, which are foods that not only provide nutrition, but can also positively affect bodily functions, and so act like medicine. 

A study led by Daniel Granato, Professor in Food Science and Health at UL, has shown how these functional foods can help reduce atherosclerosis and other forms of heart disease. 

“The capacity for our food to do more than provide us with nutrition is huge and relatively unexplored. Cardiovascular diseases are a main cause of death, but they can be prevented. By bringing food scientists, medical scientists and pharma companies together, we can employ the same methods used in producing medicinal drugs and produce foods that might mitigate health conditions. 

“In this study, we propose an accurate computational approach to design tailored functional foods by predicting their bioactivity, allowing us to map how different food components benefit the body,” said Prof Granato. 

The study, involving researchers at UL’s Bernal Institute, the Federal University of Alfenas, Brazil, and Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil, has been published in the journal Trends in Food Science & Technology

Atherosclerosis is the primary cause of cardiovascular diseases, contributing to more than 33 per cent of annual cardiovascular deaths globally. Westernised dietary patterns, a high prevalence of overweight and obesity, and an increased incidence of glucose intolerance and type-2 diabetes are related to atherosclerosis. However, despite consumers looking for functional foods to decrease the risk of cardiovascular diseases, few are available in the marketplace. 

The paper addresses an important global public health issue towards improving people’s life quality and decreasing cardiovascular disease risk. The study will enable the design of functional foods to prevent and treat many different diseases, potentially reducing the huge pressure experienced by health services in treating future diseases. 

Prof Granato, who leads a research team in food chemistry at UL’s Bernal Institute, explained: “This contribution offers a ‘proof of concept’ that structure-based (SBDD) or ligand-based drug design (LBDD) approaches can be used, and that food/pharma companies should consider for developing new foods and nutraceuticals. 

“Food science, cardiovascular disease therapy and in silico (computer) modelling should be linked to produce functional foods to mitigate atherosclerosis,” he added. 

“This is critical to achieve United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in good health and wellbeing, as well as ensuring healthy lives and promoting wellbeing for all at all ages, by optimising discovery of bioactive compound sources and reducing time to market for new functional foods”. 

Co-author and Senior Lecturer in the UL Department of Biological Sciences Dr Andreas Grabrucker added: “The proposed approach can go far beyond heart diseases. It will be the basis of a new research project at UL that aims to identify functional foods that lower the risk for neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.”