On the Horizon: Educating the Immune System

Interview with Sonja Nodland, PhD, Principal Scientist, ProActive Health

Today, we are speaking to Sonja Nodland, PhD, a Principal Scientist on Kerry’s Proactive Health team about how we can educate the human immune system. Immune health has become an increasingly hot topic since the emergence of COVID-19. The immune system is the first line of defence for the body against foreign pathogens and as novel viruses, such as COVID-19, emerge where there are not yet any approved pharmaceutical treatments, your immune system becomes your best line of defence. Sonja also discusses what this means for the food and beverage industry and how she anticipates a boom in consumers looking for quality ingredients that are proven to have a benefit to our immune system. Listen to learn more about the importance of immune health.

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Interview notes:

Damien: Can an enhanced immune system defend us from COVID-19?

Sonja: Absolutely, your immune system is the first line of defence to your body against any foreign pathogens and especially for something like COVID-19, where there aren't any approved pharmaceutical treatments. Probably your immune system is your best defence at the moment.

Damien: Sonja you have a very compelling idea that the human immune system needs to be educated. Can you tell us why that's important and how it happens?

Sonja: Yeah, certainly. The immune system has a big job and that is to defend our bodies against any foreign threats. But at the same time, it needs to recognise what is part of our body so it doesn't attack us. Education, like many things in life, is the key here.

You know, if you think big picture about the immune system, it really needs two things to function well. It needs the right weapons and artillery to defend us. So that would be the cells. And the anti-microbial molecules that it makes. And then it also needs to know when to use those molecules. So, food actually turns out to play a pretty important role in this. When we eat food it, of course, gives us energy for our bodies to work every day and get through life. But it also provides us a lot of different kinds of nutrients. And many of these nutrients are absolutely critical for properly making the weapons that the immune system has for making the cells, for making the different molecules that it uses to defend our body. But a sort of lesser appreciated part of our diet is that our diet can help educate the immune system as well.

Education of the immune system is a pretty complex process. It's been being revealed by scientists around the world really for the last 30 years and one of the ways that that happens is when the immune system interacts with these sort of larger molecules that are present both in our microbiomes and as well as in our diet. This tells the immune system what is a threat and what is a friend. If it sees for instance, fragments of dead bacteria, viruses in the right context - it understands that this might be a pathogen, or this might be a helpful bacteria that we would want to allow to reside in our gut microbiomes. So when we eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and other foods, this gives us exposure to lots of these different kinds of molecules and really helps to educate our immune system.

One of the things that has sort of happened in the last 60 years or so, the second half of the last century, was that our diets have changed, and we're not really experiencing as many of these molecules in our diets as we may be used to be, or at least it's easier to eat a diet that's not as enriched in these molecules. So one way that we can help with this is to eat foods that are now being fortified by food manufacturers to actually contain these types of molecules.

Damien: So in this climate of COVID-19, this idea of using particular types of science to enhance the immunity capabilities of food must be of great interest to food producers and the customers that you're interacting with. What are they telling you and what are they asking for at the moment in terms of immunity enhancement?

Sonja: I think a lot of our customers, actually all of them, are looking to respond to consumer’s needs and to help support the nutrition of the world. And one of the things that's top of mind right now is how do you support your immune system. And when manufacturers are looking for ways to fortify their foods to support the immune system I would say the number one ask is for value. Great ingredients they can trust that have value backed by science. And this science backing – the research that demonstrates that the ingredient is efficacious, that it's safe and that the claims that are made about what it can do actually are true--is probably the biggest ask that we're hearing from our customers right now.

Damien: Is Kerry, based on the strength of its research, able to support that idea? And support that principle based on sound research?

Sonja: Right. I will give an example. The ProActive Health team has an ingredient called Wellmune. It's a baker’s yeast Beta Glucan with over 15 years of research investigating how it works in the body - the mechanism of action - and has a great portfolio of efficacy research. So when we explain to our customers how they can help their consumers’ immune health we have a great deal of data that stands behind us and shows that when we did this trial this really did happen. Here is why it happened because we understand how the mechanism works in the body.

Damien: Sonja let’s talk about the future of immunity and food, because this to the layperson this sounds to be a tremendously exciting area. If we were trying to think about the future of immunity and food, what should consumers expect their food products to look like in the future? What should producers be thinking about investing in as they prepare for the next five or seven years of food products?

Sonja: From a consumer perspective what they should be looking for are quality ingredients. We all know that there's quite a range of ingredients out there that purport to support this function or that function. But what you really need to look for is an ingredient that is backed by credible science. This is science that is done to a gold standard, that's published in reputable journals by reputable academics. And when you see the science support for the ingredient, then you know that what you're getting in that food is actually going to do what it says it's going to do.

From a producer perspective, with the increase interest in immune health, I expect to see quite a proliferation of immune ingredients. We've only tapped the very surface of what's out there and what could help support immunity.

There has been a real boom to immunonutrition research in the last 10 years and I would expect that this health crisis is only going to help expand that research, increase the funding and we're going to see more and more ingredients coming on the market. And not just coming on the market with maybe one little study but they're going to have some very deep knowledge behind them. Helping to explain why this is a good ingredient and why it should be part of your diet.

To learn more about how COVID-19 is affecting the food and beverage industry, including changes in consumer preferences and purchasing behaviours, visit Kerry’s COVID-19 resource page.

About Sonja Nodland, PhD:

Sonja Nodland is a Principal Scientist in Kerry’s ProActive Health team. She specialises in human immunology and its application to the nutrition and functional foods industry. Before joining Kerry, Sonja had a very distinguished academic career completing her graduate studies at the Washington University in St Louis and continuing on to complete her doctoral and postdoctoral work at the University of Minnesota. She has been published in a number of influential journals, including the Journal of Immunology. Sonja remains committed to leading research and to maintaining her academic network with colleagues around the world.

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