Digestive health

The Opportunity

Gut health is central to wellbeing, and is particularly important to Asian consumers. As incomes grow, populations age and diets become more varied, there is a burgeoning appetite for food and beverage products that help maintain a healthy gastrointestinal tract.

The market opportunity is driven by two factors – demographic and psychographic. In demographic terms, the proportion of Asian consumers over the age of 50 is predicted to rise from 20% to 40% by 2030. Many of these consumers are much more affluent than preceding generations, with the Chinese market for functional foods that target gastrointestinal health estimated at $US5.9 billion in 2015.

Equally importantly, there is broad acceptance amongst Asian consumers that gut health matters. It’s not a taboo subject, and people are prepared to pay premium prices for food and beverage products that promise better gut health. In return, they expect physiological benefits that are scientifically validated. Products that can provide this assurance will be well placed to reap the benefits.


Research aims

Gastrointestinal dysfunction makes it hard for the body to absorb nutrients. Discomfort and inflammation are other unwelcome gut related effects. Diet is a factor but the underlying mechanisms are poorly understood, especially when it comes to making cause-and-effect claims for particular foods.

A pivotal weakness is the relative lack of understanding of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which is a common problem in Asian populations. This prevents New Zealand food producers making valid claims for gastrointestinal health benefits. To address this, the High-Value Nutrition research programme is conducting in-depth research, primarily via access to a large cohort of patients with IBS who are precisely phenotyped.

Clinical evidence shows a food-health relationship for gut function and comfort using accepted biomarkers. The characterisation and description of biomarkers will also be informed by the insights we gain into the Asian ‘worried well’ group of consumers from the High-Value Nutrition Consumer Insights programme.


Key research elements

The first hypothesis is that the gastroinstestinal tract is a critical component of the Gut Brain Axis (GBA), and that GBA signalling underpins the beneficial effects of foods on gut function and comfort with flow-on effects to the brain. The second hypothesis is that food ingredients trigger beneficial responses involving gastrointestinal function and comfort, with additional benefits for brain function.


These hypotheses will be explored on a number of fronts.

The first objective will be to determine the diagnostic predictability of functional IBS phenotypes to allow for design of nutritional intervention studies that establish food effects on relevant biomarkers.

The second objective will be to identify microbial and host factors that provide mechanistic insights, and increase the predictability of existing biomarkers of functional IBS phenotypes for use in nutrition intervention studies.

Objective 3 will be proof of principle in food interventions that demonstrate clinical predictability of biomarkers. The gut health relationships will be established to enable the design, development and validation of foods that support gastrointestinal tract health.

The final key objective will be consumer activation. Working with the Consumer Insights team, this objective will establish an eHealth platform and evaluate e-delivery of information and food solutions that promise improved gut function and comfort and physical well-being for Asian conusmers.


Expected outputs

The ultimate goal is to establish a world-class capability for innovative New Zealand food and beverage products – especially those that improve gut health, through a new understanding of the mechanisms that drive it.

This will be achieved using an integrated approach that is beyond the capacity of individual teams. It’s a multidisciplinary effort that encompasses nutrition, food, chemistry, biochemistry, physiology, immunology, microbiology, pre-clinical and clinical expertise, and the application of platform “omics” capabilities.

The programme creates networked and national capability with a single point of access for the New Zealand food and beverage industry. It will aid rhe development of emergent scientists, postdoctoral fellows and PhD student researchers. Faster and more cost-effective systems will be in place to enable clinical validation of food claims. 

There will be a new knowledge base leading to new opportunities in gut health for the New Zealand food and beverage sector. Identifying fundamental pathways and modifiable risk biomarkers for poor gastrointestinal function in the Asian consumer is where New Zealand can gain both competitive commercial advantage and develop a science programme of international excellence.


Programme details

High-Value Nutrition has allocated $3.6million to AgResearch to research the relationship between nutrition and gastrointestinal health. The principal investigator is Associate Professor Nicole Roy, who will be collaborating with colleagues at the University of Otago, the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research and Plant & Food Research.

Associate Professor Nicole Roy, Principal Scientist and Team Leader (Food Nutrition & Health), AgResearch, is the Science Leader and Chair of the Gut Health Theme for High-Value Nutrition. Scientists, representing essential skill sets and expertise in clinical intervention/nutrition studies, biomarker identification and analysis, balanced across a key University (Otago), CRIs (AgResearch, Plant & Food Research) and independent research institutes (Malaghan).

Key scientists include Assoc Prof Richard Gearry from the Department of Medicine at the University of Otago, Dr Karl Fraser  of AgResearch, Dr Elizabeth Forbes-Blom, Senior Research Fellow and Team leader (Gut Inflammation) at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, Dr Wayne Young from AgResearch, and Dr Janine Cooney, Team Leader for Physiological Chemistry at Plant and Food Research.



Dr Nicole Roy, Principal Scientist and Science Team Leader at AgResearch, New Zealand

Dr Nicole Roy is a Principal Scientist and the Science Team Leader of Food Nutrition & Health based at AgResearch in Palmerston North. She is also a member of the High-Value Nutrition Science Leadership team – charged with unlocking the science of how food affects gastrointestinal health. Dr Roy completed her PhD in Canada and the United States and postdoctoral studies in Scotland, where she focused on how nutrition and food components can modify inter-organ nutrient partitioning and communication using tracer kinetics, animal models and in vitro models. At AgResearch, Nicole led complex studies of amino acid metabolism in key tissues in lactating ruminants and in growing lambs affected by internal parasites. Nicole is also an Adjunct Associate Professor Senior Lecturer at the Riddet Institute, in Palmerston North.





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