Tata Chemicals provides glimpse to future production of food supplements – Economic Times
These nibbles are meant to be healthy, with no sugar and less oil than the usual fried food. Some of them are also meant to help beneficial bacteria grow in your intestines.
Tata Chemicals is trying to build a food business around the theme of health, an especially hard problem when the definition of what constitutes healthy food keeps changing. Reducing sugar and oil is generally considered healthy, but recent research has shown that health and disease is far more complicated than what we imagined so far.
Specifically, the discovery of the role of microorganisms in disease has uncovered an entirely new field that is growing in sophistication every day, and providing clues to what really happens in our bodies. Tata Chemicals is trying to build a business around the microbiome, the scientific name for the complete set of microorganisms living in our bodies.The Tata Chemicals Innovation Centre is on a picturesque hill overlooking Pune city. It is small, with about 60 scientists doing research, but the company owns most of the land around it and hence has scope for expansion. “While this is an application-oriented R&D centre,” says chief operating officer Arup Basu, “one of the things I am keen on is for the scientists to have some curiosity. Many scientific discoveries have come not with an end objective in mind.”
So the company has created an environment, both physical and intellectual, where people are keen to do science. “This is not a corporate environment,” says Gopi Khatragada, chief technology officer of the Tata Group. Scientists are encouraged to think about their own scientific interests one day in a week.
By design, the centre is interdisciplinary with a strong background in basic sciences and not filled with food scientists. So in the lab you find physicists, chemists, botanists, molecular biologists and other researchers with no experience in food science. Together they look at food science from many angles. To add some more intellectual power, they collaborate with some of the best universities in the country and abroad.
Role of Bacteria
A collaboration between Yale University and the Tata Group began last year, with the company committing funding for five years. One of the projects in this partnership is between Tata Chemicals and the department of immunobiology in Yale.
Noah Palm, a professor at the department, had been looking at the interactions between the gut bacteria and the immune system. Tata Chemicals started a project with him to understand the role of gut bacteria in health and disease, and specifically on the role of prebiotics and gut bacteria and physiology.
The human body plays host to a large variety and number of bacteria, whose role in disease is being researched intensely only in the last one decade. The gut bacteria specifically are now known to play an important role, promoting good health when its composition is right and causing disease when it is not right. The diseases they cause are serious ones: diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune diseases… However, scientists are only beginning to understand the correlations between gut bacterial composition and disease. They are still some way from understanding the mechanisms behind the correlations.
Yale and Tata Chemicals together look at two kinds of food products and gut bacteria: fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and galactooligosaccharides (GOS). FOS are found in nature, mainly in vegetables like onions, chicory root, garlic and asparagus. They are sweet, indigestible and considered good food for beneficial bacteria. GOS are found normally in human breast milk. “Our aim is to understand the role of FOS and GOS and their impact on microbial composition when consumed orally,” says Noah Palm, assistant professor of immunology at Yale University.
“Our larger goal is to transition dietary supplements from a poorly-understood field to a true understanding of the mechanisms by which they have their effects.” FOS and GOS are sometimes called prebiotics, and are becoming a popular form of dietary supplement.
They are different from probiotics, which are the actual beneficial bacteria. Prebiotics provide food for the bacteria. “When we take probiotics,” says Khatragada, “we do not know how long they remain in the gut. Prebiotics make it convenient for the right kind of bacteria to grow.”
The Yale-Tata programme studies the effect of FOS and GOS on pure bacteria, a mix of bacteria, and inside an actual animal gut. Scientists take germ-free mice, a form of mice bred specifically for microbiome experiments, and transplant human bacteria into their gut.
The mice are fed with FOS and GOS. Scientists then look at the fecal sample for changes in bacterial composition, and at the blood for changes in markers, molecules that indicate health or disease. It is as close to a human experiment as is ethically possible.
Tata Chemicals already sells FOS to food companies. Its long-term aim is to develop the right kind of products, based on a true understanding of the influence of diet on the microbiome.
Research in Pune and with some Indian institutions has hinted at the utility of traditional diets, especially of South India, in generating a good mix of gut bacteria. “If you are eating good home food,” says Basu, “please stay with that. We are saying from a specific perspective, not an emotional perspective, that you need to follow what your grandmother did.” For those who cannot do that, there may be healthy supplements available sometime in the future.