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Research impact highlights - Food

Say cheese: the taste of success

Paul Cotter and Kieran Kilcawley

The flavour of cheese is dictated by the microorganisms that are involved in the fermentation process. In recent years, scientists have begun to use a form of advanced DNA analysis, referred to as ‘metagenomics’, to study the microbiology of cheese to a greater extent than ever before. This approach has now culminated in the most detailed study of its kind to date.

The Teagasc team employed metagenomics to characterise in great depth the microbiology of 184 samples of cheeses from across the world, including newly studied samples from 55 cheeses sourced from Irish artisanal cheese producers.

This study is of tremendous value to the cheese industry, and after national and international dissemination, it is leading to the better harnessing of microbes that can positively impact flavour and other qualities, with a view to making the most desirable qualities of artisanally produced cheeses available to even wider markets.

Correspondence: paul.cotter@teagasc.ie
Other contributors: Aaron Walsh, Guerrino Macori, Fiona Crispie and the Teagasc High Throughput Sequencing Centre.
Funding: Science Foundation Ireland through funding of APC Microbiome Ireland. 

Healthy eating for healthy aging

Sinéad McCarthy, Caoileann Murphy and Helen Cummins

People are living longer, and it’s important that these years of life are spent in good health and living independently. Protein is essential for healthy aging, and many national dietary guidelines recommend an increase in protein consumption for older adults. Too little protein consumption in older years is associated with muscle loss, and can result in increased frailty and fall risk, and loss of independence.

The Nutrimal project examined novel nutritional means to prevent malnutrition in older people. In order to understand factors influencing acceptance of novel or functional foods for older consumers, research was undertaken to determine attitudes to healthy aging, diet, protein and functional foods.

In general, senior consumers are engaged with the concept of healthy aging and healthy eating, and try to follow a healthy diet. The most salient outcome from this research was that protein did not feature in routine daily healthy eating for many. While discussions covered avoiding sugar and fats, many were not familiar with the important role of protein in their diet. Indeed, some thought their GP would prescribe it if required.

The most trusted sources for health information were mainly doctors and family members, and therefore they play a key role in healthy aging advice. This research has emphasised the need for healthy eating advice around protein to promote healthy aging, and has informed national strategies, food policy and consumer education campaigns. 

Correspondence: sinead.mccarthy@teagasc.ie
Other contributors: Helen Roche and Claire Corish.
Funding: Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine Food Institutional Research Measure (Nutrimal 14F822).

The digestion question

André Brodkorb

One strategy used to better understand the relationship between food and health is to monitor and simulate food disintegration and interactions within the gastrointestinal tract. However, in vivo studies on the digestive system can be prohibitively expensive, and require invasive and sometimes unsuitable methods.

To address this, Teagasc researchers, in collaboration with international researchers from academia and industry, have developed and validated in vitro digestion models, such as the INFOGEST method. This standardised protocol is based on an international consensus developed by the worldwide INFOGEST network, with André Brodkorb leading the task of harmonising digestion methods.

These methods are now offered as a service to food companies as part of Teagasc Moorepark’s technical services to industry. This has led to several successful collaborations, with the results helping industry partners to better position their products on the market. In addition, Teagasc researchers have helped to establish these digestion methods as recognised industry protocols among SMEs, national and multinational companies worldwide.

A monthly webinar series was introduced in September 2020 to share studies and results from the INFOGEST network to academia and the food industry.

Correspondence: andre.brodkorb@teagasc.ie
Other contributors: Linda Giblin, INRAE, Quadram Institute and University of Leeds, Agroscope, CIAL/CSIC-UAM and INFOGEST network (formerly COST action FA1005).
Funding: Food Institutional Research Measure (FIRM); Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; VistaMilk (SFI Research Centre); Enterprise Ireland; client funding.


Cheese for China

Diarmuid Sheehan, Hao Ouyang (Walsh Scholar), Song Miao, Mark Fenelon and Kieran Kilcawley

The Irish cheese industry is valued at over €1 billion. Traditionally, Cheddar exports to the UK accounted for 65%, but with the impact of Brexit, cheese producers are looking to far away markets for growth, specifically in China. However, there are significant knowledge gaps to overcome – firstly, for Irish food producers to understand evolving consumer preferences for cheese in China, and secondly, for Chinese consumers who have low prior knowledge of cheese, as it is not a traditional part of their cuisine.

282,000 Irish cheese exports have grown from 77,000 tonnes in the 1990s to 282,000 tonnes in 2020.

Teagasc and UCC researchers have undertaken focus group studies to better understand the perception, experience and expectations of cheese in China. This has identified a preference for cheeses with a mild and milky flavour, as opposed to the stronger sensory profile of Cheddar. The research also shows that certain labelling information, such as flavour profiles and serving suggestions, can better align the consumers’ expectations with the actual eating experience.

With retail sales of cheese to China predicted to grow by 12.5%, this research is currently being utilised by Irish cheese producers to develop innovative cheese solutions for China.

Correspondence: diarmuid.sheehan@teagasc.ie
Other contributors: Mary McCarthy and Alan Kelly (University College Cork).
Funding: Dairy Research Ireland


Training abattoirs in animal welfare

Kevin Brennan

New animal welfare regulation aimed at the protection of animals at the time of killing provides a series of measures aimed at avoiding pain and minimising unnecessary suffering and distress during the slaughtering process. The regulation places strong emphasis on well trained and skilled abattoir operatives, and stipulates that abattoirs have a management-designated trained and competent animal welfare officer (AWO).

In response to these new regulations, Teagasc has developed a hugely successful and comprehensive training and competency assessment programme. The programme has been successfully accessed and validated by the EU Food and Veterinary Office (report available online) and has been adopted in other EU states.

In Ireland, over 4,000 meat industry operatives – including managerial staff – have completed certified training programmes, representing over 300 meat processing companies. A welfare assurance standard titled ‘Standard for the management of animal welfare at time of slaughter’, has also been published and implemented. This standard has been incorporated as a training aid into the above training programme, as well as the national food assurance standard.

Correspondence: kevin.brennan@teagasc.ie
Other contributors: Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine, Donal Connolly and Diarmaid Morkan (MRCVS).
Funding: Funded by industry (training fees).