Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship

Cristina Fernandez-Fraguas

Cristina Fernandez has joined IFR on a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship to investigate how adapting foods to control fat digestion could reduce obesity and chronic diet-related disease.

Obesity, and related health problems, account for 5% of the EU’s healthcare budget and this figure is rising. Campaigns to promote healthier lifestyles and better diets are a major part of the solution to this, but the food industry can help by developing healthier products and ingredients. Modifying how fats and lipids in the diet are digested could help this, through reducing fat absorption from food and through increasing feelings of fullness, or satiety. Exactly how lipids and fats are digested isn’t fully understood. Food is a complex mixture of different ingredients and Cristina’s project will be focussed on how other components in the food matrix affect lipid digestion.

Lipids are needed for the body to absorb vital fat-soluble nutrients such as carotene and omega-3 fatty acids. Lipids reaching the furthest part of the small intestine, the ileum, help trigger a hormonal response that slows down digestion, naturally reducing appetite. So we can’t do without them. But lipids are high in calories and excess consumptions and have been linked to obesity. An excess of lipids in the blood (hyperlipidemia) is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Slowing down their digestion avoids this, controls energy intake and increases satiety, and the aim of this project is to find practical ways this can be achieved in foods we eat.

Lipid digestion isn’t simple. Fats don’t readily mix with water, so proteins or emulsifiers are used that act at the interface between water and fats to hold the structure together. This interface is also important during digestion. Lipase, the enzyme that breaks down lipids, needs to adsorb to the surface of the fat droplet. The body produces bile salts that act at the fat droplet interface, preparing it for digestion by displacing the protein layer. Previous work at IFR has shown how conditions in the stomach can change the rate at which fats are digested as a result of how the proteins at the interface are affected.

Much of this research has been carried out in model systems, which simplify down foods to allow us to understand what is happening in the finest detail. But food is complex, and contains lots of different components which could affect the fat droplet interfaces. Cristina’s project is designed to look at what these effects could be. What ingredients in foods could reduce lipid digestion, so reducing calorie intake and increasing satiety?

A model emulsion prepared for in vitro digestion studies

Cristina’s project fits into a wider programme of research at IFR on the links between food structure and health. She will work closely with Professor Peter Wilde, who leads IFR’s innovative work on molecular properties of proteins, surfactants and lipids and their influence on food. IFR pioneered the use of Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) in food science, and this will be invaluable in this project as it will allow Cristina to visualise on the nanoscale the interactions between molecules at the interfaces. On a much larger scale, the Model Gut is a state-of-the-art recreation of the conditions in the small intestine that will give an accurate simulation of how different foods alter lipid digestion.

The Intra-European Fellowships are designed by Marie Curie Actions to help career development by giving researchers the chance to learn new skills and techniques in Europe’s leading research centres, such as IFR. The two year fellowship will help Cristina to develop new research projects on her return to Spain as well as develop the best ways of transferring knowledge to industry.

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