Infant health

The Opportunity

High-Value Nutrition has identified “Weaning Foods for Health” as a global megatrend in consumer purchasing behaviours. The research programme will generate knowledge and methods to support future product development and validation by NZ companies, including the registration of food-health claims on supporting infant immune development and preventing common early childhood

The global baby food market was estimated to reach US$70b by 2016 (Euro Monitor 2012 – From cradle to school: opportunities for babies’ food and children food) with approximately US$50b in milk formula and further US$20b in prepared and other baby/infant foods. Sales in China were expected to exceed US$12b by 2016. Between December 2013 and November 2016, 54% of infant nutrition product launches came from Asia Pacific [Mintel 2015]. Relevant to the infant/toddler market, growing up milk accounted for 39% of launches, followed by >6 months infant formula (19%) and baby cereals (10%). Baby food products are the fastest growing product category in China’s supermarket retail sector and feature science-driven innovations. Much of the growth in the baby food category comes from increased sales of baby cereals (US$2.3b). Of particular interest to this programme, prebiotics are becoming increasingly common in baby formula and growing up milks [Mintel 2015].


Research aims

Diet, antibiotic use and stress are known to alter gut microbiota composition, leading to reduced immune defence against respiratory tract infection. In addition, the significant rise in the ageing population that is susceptible to poor respiratory health is of major concern, and air pollution has become a major health threat. This research programme seeks to demonstrate the beneficial effects of New Zealand food and beverage products to build immune defence against influenza and manage pollution driven respiratory inflammation.

It is well known that the gut and respiratory systems are mucosal tissues, and it has been speculated that the mucosal immune system is itself an ‘organ’ in which the mucosal immune cells distributed throughout the body influence different mucosal tissues. Beyond this connection, the gut is the most powerful immunological organ, making it an ideal target for foods that beneficially modulate immune function.

To demonstrate immune modulation in the general population, nutrition-responsive biomarkers that demonstrate clinical relevance and beneficial modulation of immune function will be used. Research will aim to identify the causal relationship between food and beverage products and immune defence against influenza and pollution-driven respiratory inflammation.


Key research elements

1.    Develop and employ a systems biology approach to utilise public data of microbiota with supporting evidence for beneficial modulation of the evolving infant GI and systemic immune system.

2.    Interrogate NZ whole foods and food components to identify lead candidates to feed these beneficial bacteria identified in (1); ensure commercial feasibility of these candidates; design an experimental prebiotic diet.

3.    Conduct a pilot clinical trial with an experimental (prebiotic) complementary feeding diet, and a probiotic control, informed by (1) and (2).

4.    Immune parameter measurements on the pilot clinical samples.

5.    Metabonomics and microbiomics of pilot clinical samples.

6.    Inform a full-scale clinical trial based on outcomes of objectives 1-5.

Programme details

High-Value Nutrition has allocated $1.775 million to the University of Auckland to research the relationship between nutrition and infant health. Professor Martin Kussmann is the principal investigator working with scientists from the Malaghan Institute, AgResearch, the Riddet Institute, and the Computational Systems Biology Institute (COSBI), University of Trento, Italy. Assoc. Professor Clare Wall from the University of Auckland will be undertaking the clinical trial on behalf of the infant health team. Other key scientists include Dr. Olivier Gasser (Malaghan), Professor Warren McNabb (Riddet), and Assoc. Professor Nicole Roy (AgResearch).


Martin Kussmann

Prinicipal investigator Professor Martin Kussmann, Liggins Institute, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand.

Martin is Professor of Systems Biology in Nutrition and Health at the Liggins Institute. His team focuses on infant micro- and mycobiome and health; maternal nutrition, breast milk and infant health; and nutritional effects on early-life epigenetics.

Previous roles include Head of the Molecular Biomarkers Core at the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences (NIHS) on the campus of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland. This program covered five platforms and teams, i.e. proteomics, metabonomics, lipidomics, micronutrient analysis and diagnostics, with a strong focus on clinical applications. Martin also serves as the Chief Scientist for the High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge.