You Are What You Eat

Scientists are coming up with more functional foods to meet growing demand from health-conscious consumers

Dr Gan Ren-You

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked greater awareness about healthier choices, ranging from food to lifestyle habits.

To Dr Gan Renyou, a Principal Investigator at A*STAR's Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI), these are exciting times in food science research.

"People are going beyond basic foods in a quest to live healthily," says Dr Gan. "In fact, we are seeing growing demand for functional food, and this could be one of the next big things in food science."

Functional foods are foods that provide health benefits beyond their basic nutritional value. Dr Gan focuses on probiotics, functional food ingredients, and their interaction with the gut microbiota to prevent or treat diseases.

Since joining SIFBI in 2022, he has been working to uncover probiotic candidate strains from fermented foods and gut microbiota and studying their potential that promote better human health. While Singapore's 30 by 30 goal aims to produce 30% of its nutritional needs locally by 2030, the Singapore Food Story (SFS) programme has an expanded scope to improve on the nutritional quality of our food, including future foods.

"There is a lot of interest from consumers and enterprises focusing on food probiotics. I hope my research can shed light on the design of personalised diets or precision nutrition for people who struggle with gut health," said Dr Gan.

Functional foods can benefit many people, including the elderly and working adults. Many seniors, for example, experience loss of muscle mass, or sarcopenia, due to poor diets. Sarcopenia puts the elderly at risk for falls, which sometimes can be fatal. Therefore, a diet rich in high-quality and easily digestible protein can reduce the prevalence of sarcopenia. For working adults grappling with stressful jobs and a lack of sleep, exercise and eating functional foods that promote better sleep could be helpful.

One of the biggest challenges is making functional foods more accessible and affordable to the general public,

Dr Gan adds

"So, we are talking about economies of scale, improving supply chain efficiency and using lower-cost ingredients."

In his research career, he expresses gratitude to his mentors, Prof Li Hua-Bin of Sun Yat-sen University and Prof Harold Corke, from the Guangdong Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

"They opened my eyes to the world of scientific research," he says. "They are teachers to whom I will always be grateful."

Gan Renyou - you are what you eat

Interest is your best teacher. When you encounter roadblocks in your research journey, be confident, be true to yourself, and keep persevering,

encourages Dr Gan