Campus close-up: Queen Margaret University

A Scottish institution aims to tackle obesity with products developed in a new food innovation centre

April 16, 2015

Source: Corbis

Value added: the effect of diet on both mind and body is being weighed up

Think of Scotland and it doesn’t take long before you think of fine food and drink: Aberdeen Angus beef, smoked salmon, or whisky.

But it is also no secret that the country struggles to shake off its tag of “the sick man of Europe”, with higher average levels of weight problems and alcohol consumption than the rest of the UK, according to Scottish government research.

These are the themes driving a new centre at Queen Margaret University, near Edinburgh, aiming to work with Scotland’s £14 billion food and drink industry to develop products that are both healthier and tastier.

The Scottish Centre for Food Development and Innovation, which opened in December, includes staff who have developed new ways of pasteurising fruit juices to give them a longer shelf life, along with researchers who have carried out analysis of the apparent physical and mental health benefits of eating chocolate with a high cocoa percentage.

Other collaborations with companies involving the centre’s staff have explored the health benefits of cold-pressed rapeseed oil and tea.

More unfamiliar foodstuffs are also on the menu. Faced with the challenge of encouraging more people to consume omega-3 fatty acids, when some people are reluctant to eat the oily fish in which they are typically found, Queen Margaret academics worked with a company to develop condiments containing oils from marine algae, the source of omega-3 acids for fish.

Researchers have also helped to develop a new apple juice containing pressings from sea buckthorn, a shrub commonly found in Scotland and high in antioxidants. But Jane McKenzie, the university’s academic lead for food and drink, said that maintaining the familiarity and attractiveness of foodstuffs would be an important part of transforming Scotland’s diet.

Such a change must involve the majority of the population, not just those who shop in Waitrose, she continued. “If it’s not tasty, you could almost forget it because it’s not going to work,” Dr McKenzie said. “The word I like to use for the focus of what we are trying to do is ‘accessibility’: it has to link to people’s current dietary habits and not be about giving them something that is totally different to what they are used to.

“It is about modifying something people are familiar with, to provide food which is quite easy to access but is also healthier and aligned with financial restrictions.”

Economically, the potential is huge. The university estimates that growth in sales of premium health products could be worth £1 billion to the Scottish economy by 2017, and that there are an estimated 12,000 small and medium-sized companies looking to exploit the market for healthy food and drink products.

Queen Margaret is already playing its part: its collaborations with small and medium-sized businesses in the food and drink sector are estimated to have generated an additional £5.7 million for the Scottish economy in the past three years.

The university’s association with food, however, goes all the way back to its foundation in 1875 as the Edinburgh School of Cookery, set up to help address the dietary issues of the urban poor.

During the world wars, the institution played an important role in advising families on how to make their rationing allowances go further. “This has been our expertise right from day one,” said Dr McKenzie, adding that the centre was the “right development” to enable research to be put into practice.

The centre is not just about business collaboration. Alongside existing qualifications, a BSc (Hons) in nutrition and food science has been created and the centre’s facilities will enable students to learn in a realistic workplace environment.

For Petra Wend, Queen Margaret’s principal, the food innovation centre is a fine example of her vision for a university “of ideas and influence”.

Food and drink is an emerging priority for the university, alongside its already identified themes of health and rehabilitation, sustainable business, and culture and creativity. Its influence could be increased by the development of land around its campus in Musselburgh, east of Edinburgh, providing incubator space as well as, potentially, clinics and care homes.

Professor Wend said a strategy of pursuing research excellence while maintaining teaching standards and the focus on collaboration with industry and society could enable Queen Margaret to bridge the gap between “research-intensive” and “teaching” institutions.

“It’s not either/or,” said Professor Wend. “We are ambitiously pushing both agendas.”

In numbers

£1bn: the sum that growth in sales of health products may be worth to the Scottish economy by 2017

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