The context and the role of agricultural research
In the last few decades, there has been an intensification in research on the relationship between food, nutrition, and health. In addition to reducing the risk of non-transmissible chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases, nowadays there is evidence of the role of diets in improving mental and physical performance, delaying the aging process, and strengthening the immunological system, among others.
The persistence of illnesses related to nutricional deficiency and lack of access to food in regions of extreme poverty is also worth noting. The estimated cost of the impact of malnutrition in the world economy nears 5% of the global GDP, which is equal to 3.5 trillion dollars a year or US$500/person/year (FAO, 2013).
Advances in agricultural technology and in food science and technology are means to provide better quality of life for the population, reduce costs due to illnesses associated with poor diets, and meet the increasing consumer demand for healthy, practical, and sensorially attractive food.
In this context, more importance is attached to the development of technologies that aim at supplying foods that, due to their nutritional composition and/or the presence of bioactive compounds, are capable of contributing to the suppression of nutritional deficiencies, to disease prevention, and to the maintenance of the population's health.
Functional foods are considered one of the main world food trends, and today they constitute the fastest-growing segment of the food industry. Such foods promote consumer health and welfare through physiological and biochemical effects that go beyond the basic nutritional functions. They represent a new frontier for the sciences that study the relationship between food, nutrition, and health and present themselves as opportunities for technological innovation with potential relevant impact on the population's health.
At a globalized economy level, which is characterized by the fragmentation of market borders and by the intense flow of information about how food is obtained, it is not enough to give assurances of safety and sustainability in food production. On top of all arrangements to provide such assurances, it is essential to ensure the technical bases to equip foods with nutritional, functional, and health-promoting characteristics.
Projects and actions for the advance of knowledge on the relationship between food, nutrition, and health have comprised part of Embrapa's research program and respective units'. Such projects are now being gathered into a research portfolio specifically aimed at the subject - the Food, Nutrition and Health portfolio (AliNutriS). The idea is to also encourage the elaboration, proposal, and implementation of new research proposals in an integrated, convergent, and complementary way.
The focus of the portfolio will be on the improvement of knowledge and the development of technologies for the biofortification of foods and to expand the supply of functional, healthy foods and of foods aimed at special needs groups (diabetics, hypertensives, people with food allergies or intolerance, and many others), systematically exploring the existing connections between food, nutrition, and health.
- broaden Embrapa's scientific and technological base and its respective use, with the aim of meeting demands from consumers, farmers, industries, and government agencies on strategies that focus on obtaining and distributing foods with differentiated and scientifically proven nutricional and functional qualities;
- contribute to the creation of new businesses in agriculture and in the food industry and to the expansion and strengthening of existing ones, promoting market niches for food products and ingredients with nutricional and functional differentials;
Nine groups of target compounds with impact in human nutrition or health are the focus of researchers. Such target compounds have been grouped in two categories, as shown in Table 1. The research and technology transfer components are presented in Table 2.
Table 1– Target compounds to be investigated in the development of ingredients and foods with nutricional increment and/or impact in human health.
Impact on nutritional state
Impact on human health
To be added/incremented
To be added/incremented
To be reduced/eliminated
Unsaturated fatty acids
Bioactive compounds (phytochemicals)
Proteins and peptides
Dietary fibers and prebiotics
Fatty acids (CLA, Omega3, DHA)
Saturated and trans fatty acids
Table 2- Research and technology transfer components
Omics Sciences (genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, nutrigenomics)
Pre-breeding and Genetic Improvement
Agricultural Production Systems
Post-harvest, Storage and Distribution
Studies on in vivo and in vitro nutrition and health/Nutritional impact
Socio-economic studies/ Technical-economic viability
Studies on market, consumers, dietary habits and nutritional education
Technology transfer and communications
Business plan, capacity-building, communications, adoption of technologies, support to public policy making
Expected results include an improvement in nutritional, functional, and health quality of foods, both in the scope of the primary sector and of agroindustry, and contributions to a greater input of nutrients, to a diversified diet, to product quality, and to backing health allegations.
The support to the use of nutricional impact assessment indicators, which are essential to promote the supply of the products developed, is also among researchers' expectations. And so are the benefits for several segments of the production chain - production, industry, traders, end consumer -, with prospects of value aggregation and of maintenance and/or opening of new markets, and a consequent increase in income and quality of life.
Researchers managing Embrapa's research portfolio
"Food, Nutrition and Health":
Carlos Bloch Junior – Embrapa Genetic Resources
Edy Sousa de Brito (chairperson) – Embrapa Tropical Agroindustry
Karina Maria Olbrich dos Santos – Embrapa Food Agroindustry
Leonora Mansur Mattos – Embrapa Vegetables
Priscila Zaczuk Bassinello (executive secretary) – Embrapa Rice and Beans
Virgínia Martins da Matta – Embrapa Food Agroindustry