Campus Venlo - HEFI - Research themes
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Digestion in the gastrointestinal tract

Digestion, the complicated process of converting food into energy (partly with the help of billions of bacteria in our gut), is crucial for the health of our body—to nourish the organs and muscles, to be able to think, to move. Without digestion, humans cannot function. But how exactly does digestion work? And how can we use that knowledge to promote health? That is what we are trying to answer in Venlo, with the help of some very unique equipment. In the microbiology research line, we study simulated digestion using mechanical in vitro models.

We look at questions such as:

  • What are the effects of carbohydrates, fat and protein, of vitamins, of fruit and vegetables?
  • Why can one person not tolerate gluten while the other can?
  • What are the health effects of new varieties of mushrooms and asparagus?
  • How do dietary patterns influence weight and health?
  • How do probiotics affect digestion?

Our primary research objectives are:

  • to study the functionality of food & food components in the GI tract of humans and animals to improve their health status
  • to investigate the role of the microbiota on health and disease
  • to modulate the gut microbiota to improve health
  • to carry out projects for small- and medium-sized enterprises in the region

Simulated digestion: TNO in Vitro Models

We distinguish ourselves from other universities and research laboratories with our unique, advanced equipment that mimics the human intestinal tract in a detailed manner. Researching digestion in living people is not easy. The process cannot be stopped, and taking samples at different places and times is time-consuming, too radical, and ethically difficult, at least in babies and children. But none of this is a problem with the simulation equipment.
 

TIM-1 & TIM-2

The equipment consists of two TIM simulators (TNO in vitro Model). These were developed by TNO and are now used by researcher and professor Koen Venema, who has used the TIM systems at TNO for 15 years. He has been using them in Venlo for three years, working on two research lines:

  • digestion in the stomach and small intestine (TIM-1)
  • the processes in the large intestine (TIM-2)

The process is fairly simple. The equipment is fed with food (TIM-1) or (digested) food and micro-organisms from faeces (TIM-2). Then the researchers can study the effects on digestion of food, and on the composition of the micro-organisms, which are important for health and disease.
 

True to life

The TIM simulators consist of a collection of tubes, valves, flexible pipes, pumps and a dialysis mechanism. These 'digestion models' accurately mimic the functioning of human digestion, including the peristaltic movements of the intestines. And all of this is combined with natural bacteria from faeces and possibly added bacteria in the form of probiotics.

These models can also be used to simulate the digestion of pigs, dogs, calves and chickens. For humans, there are different protocols for babies, adults and the elderly.

 

Testing foods & medicines

In the TIM systems, the effects of nutrients in combination with the micro-organisms in the intestines become clear. The simulations provide more insights into issues such as:

  • the caloric value of proteins, carbohydrates and fats
  • the absorption of cholesterol, fat and sugar in the blood
  • the degradation of enzymes
  • the absorption of medicines
     

Working with entrepreneurs & SMEs

Testing foods, medicines and supplements using the TIM systems is not only interesting for scientists but also for the food industry. Product health claims can be substantiated or discredited through controlled testing. We welcome entrepreneurs and SMEs to come and have us test their products. One of the big advantages of the simulators is their speed, as the results are usually known within a few days (depending on the analyses).
 

Hard at work

The two TIM systems have already been doing a great deal of work in recent years. Dozens of food combinations have been 'digested', such as special food combinations for babies and adults, as well as alternative protein sources from insects and algae. Simulations with animal digestion, including calves and pigs, have also been carried out. We are even working on the development and validation of a simulation for chickens, in response to questions from companies in the region.
 

Addressing individual differences in microbiota

The millions of micro-organisms in our gut, named the gut microbiota, are very important for health and disease. Every person has his or her own assortment of micro-organisms in the large intestine. We therefore recognise that people can respond differently to certain ingredients, precisely because of the composition of their mixture of micro-organisms. We can address this in our research by studying changes in the composition and activity of the gut microbiota, and translate those results to a prediction on health and disease, also in combination with cell-culture experiments.
 

Lead researcher Koen Venema

Koen Venema studied Natural Sciences at the University of Groningen where he earned his PhD on research into lactic acid bacteria. Since 2014, he has held the endowed chair in Gastrointestinal Microbiology at UM and has been the owner of Beneficial Microbes Consultancy. “Intestinal microbiology is my passion. Intestines contain ten times as many microorganisms as the human body has cells. You could say that humans consist of ninety percent gut bacteria. That fact fascinates me enormously.”

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Food Innovation and Health

In the research line Food, Innovation and Health, we apply insights from human nutrition- and health sciences to drive actual health food product creation. Human nutrition and health studies are often limited to the health effects caused by isolated nutritional ingredients. But humans don’t consume isolated ingredients; they eat whole foods. That is why we study the effects of actual food items, so our studies can be applied to real-world situations and food production.

Primary objectives

  • Investigate and optimise the effects of food innovations on human health
  • Address health concerns, such as:
    • gut health
    • weight management and glucose tolerance
    • physical fitness and bone health in the elderly
    • clinical nutrition for specific patients
  • Create functional foods, such as sports nutrition and/or crops with enhanced functionality

At Campus Venlo, clinical and basic scientists are searching for the causes and cures of various conditions. An in-depth understanding of digestion and bioavailability, as well as knowledge about the mechanism of action of food on health, play an important role in all of this. That is why in this research line, we focus on questions such as:

  • How exactly do foods affect our health?
  • How do our intestines and other organs convert food into metabolites that can be used by our body?
  • Can we combine and portion out our food in ways that help prevent conditions such as diabetes and food intolerance?
  • Can we cure diseases using nutrition instead of medicine?

Working with entrepreneurs

Not only do these questions keep doctors and scientists busy, but they’re also being asked by entrepreneurs in the food industry who want to innovate or bring new products to market. At Campus Venlo, researchers, students and entrepreneurs work together to test ideas and foster innovation. We do this using the most modern labs and simulators, such as in vitro systems (digestion models and cell lines). Every entrepreneur with an idea or a question in the field of nutrition is welcome.

Fundamental research into concrete applications

Here in Venlo, we are unique because we take the next step of translating fundamental research into concrete applications—from a theoretical concept to the laboratory and to concrete tests, for example, with a gastrointestinal simulator and clinical research. We actually test the effects of food—where possible directly in consumers—bringing science to society. The bundling of all elements (education, research and valorisation) under one roof makes us special here in Venlo. 

- Freddy Troost, researcher & co-founder of the master’s programme in Health Food Innovation Management

Health effects of food & new products

Food, Innovation and Health research focuses on the effects of food on health. We also work on the development of new food products and concepts. This is primarily focused on the following areas:

Healthy intestines

  • How do certain foods affect the health of the intestine?
  • Can certain ingredients ensure better elimination and more regular stools or prevent bloating?
  • How can we develop new foods that help people with food intolerances, such as intolerances to wheat or milk products?

Elderly people & nutrition

  • What are the effects of certain foods and supplements?
  • How can we help or hinder the absorption of food in the intestines?
  • Can elderly people stay healthy for longer by consuming specific food products that may, for instance, help prevent the breakdown of muscles or stimulate bone health?

Sports nutrition

The consumption of special sports food and drinks has risen dramatically in recent years. In Venlo, we test different products, looking at questions like:

  • Does adding a special type of fibre to a sports diet prevent gastrointestinal complaints during endurance sports?
  • Do certain protein-rich products stimulate muscle recovery and building?
  • How can we create functional food products that increase physical fitness in physically active people?

Agrofood

The way in which crops grow and are then processed by the body is also the subject of research in Venlo. We examine the effects of various innovations in the agro-food sector on the components of crops and therefore on human health.

Medicines

By eating certain foods and by enriching or modifying food, the use of medication or the side effects of medication can be reduced. To understand this better, we research questions such as:

  • Can certain fruits and vegetables with anti-oxidants improve digestion and health?
  • What are the medicinal effects of nuts and seeds?
  • Can we translate concepts from basic science into actual food products to combat overweight and diabetes?

Lead researcher Freddy Troost

Freddy Troost (1973), an associate professor at Maastricht University, studied Health Sciences at Maastricht University and subsequently specialised as a medical physiologist and nutrition scientist. He then worked for almost twenty years as a researcher at the NUTRIM research school at UM, where he mainly focused on research into the influence of food and food ingredients on bowel function and health. In 2008, he became involved in the development of UM’s Campus Venlo. “It was a great next step. Here, in the heart of one of the largest agro areas in Europe, we develop knowledge, together with other knowledge institutes and ambitious entrepreneurs. We work on concrete applications for science, develop new products, and contribute to better and healthier food.”

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Behavioural gastronomy

Half of the adult population in the Netherlands suffers from overweight or obesity. The solution seems simple: eat less (or eat healthier) food, and exercise more. But how do you motivate people to eat fewer unhealthy foods and more fruits and vegetables? This is one of the spearheads in the Laboratory of Behavioural Gastronomy of the Centre for Healthy Eating and Food Innovation at Campus Venlo.

Within the Laboratory of Behavioural Gastronomy, we examine the psychological side of food intake. For example:

  • Why do we like sugar so much?
  • Why do we choose to eat a greasy snack if a healthy meal is available that we know is better for us?
  • How can we overcome a craving for wine or for chocolate?
  • What causes children (and indeed many adults) to dislike vegetables?

We’re exploring all of these questions and more. The general question concerns ‘why we eat what we eat’ and the overall mission is helping people to eat healthily. In our research, we focus on flavour perception (sensation and liking) and eating behaviour (food intake and food choice).

Learning to (dis)like foods and flavours

We’re interested in the dynamic nature of food preferences—how food likes and dislikes are acquired. For example, if you indulge on chocolate cake then the first piece of cake tastes wonderful but the fifth piece will no longer taste that great anymore, at which point you decide to stop eating cake. This satiation for chocolate cake is a psychological, boredom-like effect. We are testing different factors affecting this satiation effect.

People are not born with a chocolate cake preference. A chocolate craving needs to be acquired through experience. In the Laboratory of Behavioural Gastronomy, we investigate all variables we believe contribute to this learned food liking. Similarly, we study how certain foods or tastes can become disliked.

Flavour perception and eating

In the Laboratory of Behavioural Gastronomy, we also study how taste and smell acuity influence one’s appetite. We know, for example, that many drugs can have a toxic effect on flavour sensation. How does a loss or change of taste impact our food choice and food intake? Further, to what degree does flavour perception and liking depend on the texture of a food?

Helping entrepreneurs & businesses

Understanding why we eat what we eat is important for the food sector. Food and nutrition manufacturers want to know how to design and develop healthy, nutritious products that the general consumer will enjoy eating.

In Venlo, we work closely with entrepreneurs and businesses. We help them with setting up taste panels for elementary sensory and consumer testing of new food products. In addition to food product development, consultancy and testing, we can assess all psychological aspects involved in consumer behaviour, including the effects of taste, food advertising, food policy and packaging on the decision to buy a product.  

Lead researcher Remco Havermans

The Laboratory of Behavioural Gastronomy is headed by Remco Havermans (Eindhoven, 1974). He studied psychology at the Radboud University (Nijmegen) and obtained his PhD in 2005 at Maastricht University with a dissertation on substance dependence and eating behaviour. After that, he was appointed as assistant professor at Maastricht University within the research section Eating Disorders and Obesity of the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience. Since 2017, Remco has also been working at Campus Venlo, where he is involved in teaching and research.

  There is still so much left to investigate. I think it's wonderful to be a pioneer here—starting a new line of research, further examining the psychology of eating.  

 

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  • Digestion in the gastrointestinal tract

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  • Food Innovation and Health

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  • Behavioural gastronomy

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