Metabolic Health

The Opportunity

Weight gain and conditions such as type 2 diabetes that develop as a consequence have become serious global health issues. More than 1.5 billion adults worldwide are now overweight or obese, with rates rapidly increasing throughout Asia. In China alone an estimated 30% of adults are struggling with their weight. A staggering 300 million people in Asia have already been diagnosed with diabetes. Since type 2 diabetes is a nutritional disease, caused primarily through lifestyle choices, it can be both prevented and treated through better nutrition. Understanding the mechanisms through which the disease is caused will enable us to target the problem of adverse metabolic health with nutritional solutions that can be employed by New Zealand food and beverage exporters.

The long-term aim of the Metabolic Health programme is to fast-track New Zealand companies in their development of food and beverages with validated health benefits for consumers – and especially Asian consumers. These solutions need to satisfy national and international regulators in terms of scientific validity, while also appealing to the tastes of Asian consumers.


Research aims

The reason some individuals are more susceptible to metabolic conditions such as diabetes may lie in the storage of body fat. Gaining even small amounts of weight can lead to the fat ‘spilling over’ from adipose tissue into critical organs such as muscle, liver and pancreas, which in turn may significantly increase risk of disease. Often known as TOFI – ‘Thin on the Outside, Fat on the Inside’ – ostensibly slim individuals may have high levels of abdominal and organ fat which may lead to increases susceptibility to diabetes whilst others who are morbidly obese may be resilient. People of Asian ethnicity may be particularly at risk of TOFI.

A collaborative research team across New Zealand will be conducting clinical studies supported by advanced molecular techniques to ask questions such as ‘who is most at risk and why?’, ‘what are the early markers of disease, and do they differ in those resilient to diabetes?’, and ‘does lipid overspill matter?’ The team will explore ways these issues can be targeted by food and beverages, particularly those aimed at key consumer groups in Asia.


Key research elements

The central research problem to be addressed is the obesity-induced lipid overspill from adipose tissue into key organs. Focused primarily on clinical intervention studies, the Metabolic Health programme will determine the underpinning mechanisms of action to identify and validate biomarkers that can then be targeted through food and beverage solutions

There are four key strands to this programme.

The first objective is to understand the overweight Asian phenotype through a cross-sectional analysis of body composition (DeXA, MRI)  and blood biomarkers (metabolomics). 400 overweight, pre-diabetic and healthy male and female adults will be recruited in Auckland, with a focus on Asian Chinese adults and undergo a series of investigations to investigate the TOFI profile and metabolic risk. Identifying the early predictive markers of diabetes that worsen long before blood glucose is important, and may lead to new opportunities for F&B approaches.

The second objective will be characterizing abdominal obesity and metabolic health risk through a longitudinal analysis of blood, urine, adipose tissue and skeletal muscle biomarkers. Are the markers that we observe circulating in blood representative of what is happening at the organ/tissue level. Nutritional intervention trials will also be conducted to see how we can improve these biomarkers, and to generate clinical data that can support food and beverage claims.

Next, the causal mechanisms rather than simply the effects of cardiometabolic risk will be targeted.  Investigations will focus on the pancreas and the prevention of the gradual failure of insulin-secreting pancreatic beta-cells that occurs in  diabetes.. Plant-origin flavonoids have been shown to be a possible route to prevention of b-cell decline, and will be the key focus of these clinical interventions Working closely with the food science platform new and better delivery options for flavonoids will also be investigated.

Consumer activation is the final strand in the strategy. Working in collaboration with High-Value Nutrition consumer scientists, this will establish an eHealth platform and evaluate e-delivery of diabetes risk information and food solutions that link to Asian consumer knowledge and purchasing decisions.


Expected outputs

The global diabetes market is forecast to be worth $45 billion by 2020, with Asia driving much of this growth. New food and beverage products with credible evidence for blood sugar control will find a receptive audience.

The Metabolic Health programme will enable the New Zealand food and beverage sector to capitalise on this opportunity. Identifying fundamental pathways and modifiable risk biomarkers for pre-diabetes in Asian consumers is where High-Value Nutrition can both gain competitive commercial advantage and develop a science programme of international excellence.

A new national capability will be created, including an interdisciplinary network of established academics, and development of emergent scientists and postdoctoral fellows, and PhD student researchers. Working together, they will provide New Zealand food and beverage businesses with advice, expertise and research in Metabolic Health.


Programme details

High-Value Nutrition has allocated $2.9 million to the University of Auckland to research the relationship between nutrition and metabolic health. Professor Sally Poppitt is the principal investigator working with scientists from the University of Otago, AgResearch and Plant & Food Research.

The lead scientist is Professor Sally Poppitt, Fonterra Chair, Human Nutrition and Director, Human Nutrition Unit at the University of Auckland. Other key scientists include Dr Ivana Sequeira, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Auckland, Dr Karl Fraser, Senior Research Scientist at AgResearch; and Dr John Ingram, Senior Scientist, P&FR and associate investigator in the MBIE-funded Lifestyle Foods Programme.



Professor Sally Poppitt, Professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Auckland, New Zealand

Professor Sally Poppitt is the founding director of the Human Nutrition Unit at Auckland University and currently holds the Fonterra Chair in Human Nutrition. She is also part of the High Value Nutrition Science Leadership team, as principal investigator for metabolic health – researching how food can help problems of obesity and its related diseases, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular health. Sally’s research has long been focused on the prevention and treatment of conditions arising from poor nutrition including overweight and obesity, metabolic dysregulation and diabetic and cardiovascular risk. She has extensive experience in conducting nutrition intervention trials in both developed and developing countries. She has published widely in peer-reviewed scientific journals, been an invited speaker at international nutrition conferences and acted as consultant to the government advisory panels and the New Zealand food industry.




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