Improving Nutrition Through Naturally Enriched Food

By John Gregory | 6/12/17 8:00 AM

As scientists learn more about nutritional compounds that can benefit our bodies and brains, a Kentucky company is at the forefront of exploring how those supplements can be integrated into the foods we eat every day.

Registered dietitian Nikki Putnam is part of Alltech’s research into “naturally enriched functional foods” and how they can improve the health and productivity of farm animals, and the quality of life of humans who eat the meat, milk, and eggs those animals produce. Putnam appeared on KET’s Connections to talk about her work in an interview recorded at this year’s Alltech ONE conference. Alltech is the Nicholasville-based agri-science company.

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Healthier Animals, Healthier Consumers
Humans can get the nutrition they need either by eating a healthy, balanced diet or by taking nutritional supplements. While those pills can help address a specific deficiency in a person’s diet, Putnam says she prefers people eat their way to good health.

“As a dietitian, I always take the food-first approach,” says Putnam. “You should be trying to get all of your nutrition through diet.”

That’s because the human body can absorb food-based nutrients more efficiently, says Putnam. While supplements can be helpful in specific instances, Putnam says our bodies can’t readily process the pure dosages of a nutrient found in pills, so much of the excess is simply flushed from our systems.

So if nutrient pills aren’t that effective and there are still things that our diet lacks, what can we do? Putnam says Alltech is experimenting with ways to boost the levels of certain nutrients in the food that livestock eats so that beneficial levels of those nutrients will be passed on to people who eat those animal products. Current research by Alltech is focused on enriching animal feeds with selenium and with an omega-3 fatty acid called Docosahexaenoic acid or DHA.

Putnam says if this is done correctly, it can benefit animals and consumers, and give farmers better profits when it comes time to sell that livestock.

“We can actually improve the health, performance, and productivity of the animals, decreasing veterinary bills,” Putnam says. “So they’re seeing the return on investment not only on supermarket shelves but also on the farm level.”

She acknowledges that the resulting food products that come from this research may be slightly more expensive when they hit the supermarket shelves, but she says the long-term health benefits should outweigh any short-term costs.

Growing Algae on a Commercial Scale
Of particular interest to Alltech researchers are compounds that have potential for preserving brain health and cognitive function. That’s where selenium and DHAs come in.

“A fact of life as we age is our brains shrink,” Putnam says. “If they’re shrinking at a very rapid rate, that’s when we actually get some memory loss.”

Omega-3s are prominent in fish like wild salmon, tuna, and mackerel, but she says most people don’t get enough of those fish in their normal diets. That’s why Alltech hopes to spike DHA levels in foods that people do eat more often, like beef and eggs. (In addition to exploring ways those compounds can be boosted in animal food, Putnam says Alltech is also looking at ways to create supplements that humans can take directly.)

Fish get DHAs by eating algae that grows in the oceans. To make algal DHA production more cost-effective on a commercial scale, Alltech has built one of the world’s largest algae production facilities in Winchester. There they are able to grow algae in stainless steel fermenting tanks.

According to the company’s website, “DHA omega-3 produced through algae is a viable alternative to fish oil and can be quickly produced commercially with limited land use and no detectable ‘fishy’ taste in the functional foods sold to consumers. These functional foods are bridging the gap between food and health, creating a new kind of preventative medicine.”

Healthy Diets for Young and Old
Putnam, an Iowa native who got her master’s degree in nutritional science from the University of Kentucky, says she’s seeing a new trend in consumer diets: people want foods that are whole, fresh, and less processed. She says those products tend to be more nutrient-rich – that is, they offer more nutrients per calorie.

“It’s more of a trend towards what can we do to positively benefit our body, versus 10 years ago it was more about restriction: diets, low-fat, low-calorie,” Putnam says.

She encourages parents to start their children on a healthy diet as soon as they can eat solid foods. That doesn’t necessarily mean buying specially processed baby products. If parents are eating wholesome foods, they can puree them and share them with their young kids. She also notes that it may take giving a child a new food item eight or ten times before they will actually develop a taste for it. So if they don’t like those carrots or that kale at first, be patient and keep trying, Putnam advises.

“It’s more about staying calm, not getting frustrated with the child, allowing them to try something new, and encouraging them when they try something new,” she says.

At the other end of the life cycle, Putnam says she’s also seeing more interest in healthy eating among older individuals.

“They’re now recognizing how nutrition can really play a big role in their quality of life,” Putnam says.

“It’s not just about physical health: it’s about feeling better about yourself. And nutrition can absolutely influence mental health as well. We’re finding out more and more how nutrition can actually help decrease depression and anxiety. It can help decrease the incidence of Alzheimer’s, so now we’re talking not just about physical health but quality of life… You feel better, you look better, everything has improved.”