Metabolic Health

Priority Research Programme

Research Team

Professor Sally Poppitt

Sally is the founding director of the Human Nutrition Unit at the University of Auckland and the Fonterra Chair in Human Nutrition and the principal investigator of the Metabolic Health programme. 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 developed and developing countries.


Public Summary

Principal Investigator: Professor Sally Poppitt, University of Auckland

Collaborating Organisations: University of Otago, AgResearch, Plant & Food Research

The High Value Nutrition Metabolic Health priority research program PANaMAH (Peak Nutrition for Metabolic Health) has been investigating the nutritional problem of weight gain and the development of type 2 diabetes in Asian communities; working with NZ F&B companies such as the Māori business cluster NUKU ki te Puku™. A growing problem in New Zealand and many other rapidly ‘westernising’ countries, it is of particular concern to Asia. In China alone almost 1 of 3 individuals are struggling with their weight, and across Asia a staggering 300 million people have already been diagnosed with diabetes, many in the new urban mega cities. Since type 2 diabetes is a nutritional disease, caused primarily through poor lifestyle habits, it can be prevented successfully through better nutrition. Previously common in the ‘over-weight and over-forties’, for many Asian consumers risk increases even whilst young and outwardly quite slim. The cause may lie in deposition of body fat within ‘unsafe’ stores, such as the important organs of pancreas and liver, which has been termed the TOFI profile where individuals are ‘Thin on the Outside yet Fat on the Inside’.

The PANaMAH TOFI_Asia study has recruited a large cohort of Asian Chinese and Caucasian adults to investigate possible causes of this increased susceptibility. The clinical studies team at the University of Auckland Human Nutrition Unit, comprising Prof Sally Poppitt, Dr Ivana Sequiera, Dr Louise Weiwei Lu, and PhD student Wilson Yip, in collaboration with diabetes clinicians Dr Rinki Murphy and Professor Garth Cooper, have enrolled lean and overweight, young and middle aged, healthy and pre-diabetic Chinese and Caucasian adults, and completed a series of investigations of the TOFI profile and metabolic risk. HVN AgResearch scientist Dr Karl Fraser and PhD student Emily Zhanxuan Wu, in collaboration with University of Manchester UK, have screened blood samples for metabolites/biomarkers of increased risk. Also, a sub-group of women have undergone MR (magnetic resonance) imaging to measure pancreas and liver fat, in collaboration with researchers at University of Newcastle, UK. Phenotyping using blood biomarkers and body/organ fat storage was completed this year, and has shown the biomarker ‘fingerprint’ to differ significantly between Chinese and Caucasians. Whether this is due to different physiology, different pathology, or a different background diet is the focus of a new study commencing in 2020 during Phase 2 of HVN. A series of novel blood biomarkers of high pancreatic fat have also been identified, and again importantly shown to be quite different between Asian Chinese and Caucasian individuals.

Identifying early predictive markers of type 2 diabetes is the first step in developing new opportunities for food and beverage (F&B) companies. A study investigating glucose-lowering effects of the plant-derived polyphenol rutin has recently been completed by the PANaMAH team, with results expected mid-2019. Throughout 2018/19 several other interventions have investigated the response of glucose-related and HVN-identified novel metabolomic biomarkers to F&B intervention; including the flagship Tū Ora project with the NUKU™ Māori business cluster as part of the HVN Vision Matāuranga platform, investigating a plant-based higher protein product scheduled for commercialisation in Asia by NUKU ki te Puku™ in 2019-20; and a whey protein dairy beverage intervention in collaboration with Fonterra Co-operative Ltd. Outcomes are expected later in 2019. F&B interventions will continue as a central focus of the next phase of the HVN program through 2019-2024; extending PANaMAH studies conducted in Asian Chinese individuals resident in New Zealand through international collaborations with research teams in China. 

Partnerships in Metabolic Health research

High-Value Nutrition has invested in partnerships with key businesses and a university to support the potential of two iconic New Zealand food products, research to help people remain independent as they age, and a novel approach to support Māori businesses to innovate by applying quality research.

Nuku ki te Puku, a cluster of Māori-owned food and beverage businesses and the Challenge have invested $1m to prototype how Māori businesses and top researchers share science and cultural expertise to develop new food for health products for export.

Metabolic Health highlights

Sanford Ltd collaboration with Massey University and HVN focuses on the  impact of consuming NZ Greenshell™ mussels in combatting early stages of osteoarthritis

Sanford Ltd collaboration with Massey University and HVN focuses on the impact of consuming NZ Greenshell™ mussels in combatting early stages of osteoarthritis

HVN is continuing its partnership with Sanford through the funding of a third research project into the benefits of Greenshell™ mussels (GSM). This latest project led by Professor Marlena Kruger from Massey University will examine the role of GSM in assisting a...