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New study recruiting volunteers to test innovations to support plant-based diets

20 May 2023

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A new study is being launched at the Quadram Institute in Norwich that will assess different ways of helping vegans and vegetarians increase their daily intake of essential nutrients.

The HARVEST Study will test hydroponic kitchen gardens that biofortify leafy greens alongside a bespoke app designed to deliver cooking recipes that provide specific micronutrients that vegans and vegetarians need.

The study is now recruiting participants who live within 40 miles of Norwich and that follow a plant-based diet to take part.

The kitchen gardens and associated app have been developed by a European Institute of Innovation and Technology-Food (EIT-Food)-supported innovation project called PERNUG. Through the HARVEST project, the team will now get data from real-life situations in a dietary intervention trial focusing on improving nutrient status in vegans and vegetarians.

Following a vegan or vegetarian diet has well-established health benefits, including a lower risk of developing cancer, heart disease and Type II diabetes. But it does also increase the risk of deficiency for certain nutrients, including vitamin B12 and iron.

Vitamin B12 is needed by the body for various metabolic processes but humans can’t make it, and crucially neither do plants – animal-derived foods are the only sources. Vegans are advised to take supplements or consume fortified foods such as breakfast cereals.

Iron is another crucial micronutrient as it helps blood transport oxygen. Meat is a good source of dietary iron, but it can also be found in plants. However, the iron’s bioavailability – how much is taken up by the body – is lower from plants as other natural components of plant foods block iron uptake. The advice is that vegans should eat twice as much iron in their diet to compensate for this. However, iron intake is still lower for vegetarians leading to iron depletion. This is especially prevalent in woman who are menstruating, because of the increased loss of blood.

The PERNUG project sought to develop innovative solutions to these micronutrient deficiencies, which could be tailored to individual nutritional needs. As proof of principle, it has initially targeted vitamin B12 and iron because of the growing popularity of plant-based diets and the difficulty of achieving sufficient intakes of these when consuming plant-based diets.

The project used “kitchen garden” units, which are small hydroponic growing systems in which consumers can grow a range of plants that could be enriched in specific micronutrients such as vitamin B12. Plants take up vitamin B12 from the supplemented hydroponic nutrient solution and less than 10g of these biofortified fresh leafy greens deliver the recommended daily amount of vitamin B12

The project also developed a bespoke beta-stage app that provides around fifty vegan recipe suggestions. This app differs from other diet and recipe apps, even those targeted at vegans, as it focuses on ways to achieve the recommended daily intake of iron and also considers its bioavailability in different foods. As well as looking at the amount of available iron, it also considers the compounds that inhibit iron uptake, like phytate in whole grains. It also includes tips for increasing iron bioavailability, for example by sprinkling on lemon juice or cooking the food in a particular way.

The team want to see whether the innovations they have developed are effective, by recruiting 52 menstruating women who follow vegan or vegetarian diets.

Participants will be given hydroponic units to take home in which they will grow plants biofortified with vitamin B12. They will also get access to the app for recipes and dietary advice.

Some of the volunteers will be given iron-focused recipes, others in the control group will get normal recipes so the researchers can compare the effectiveness of the app in increasing iron levels over the course of the trial.

The study has been approved by the relevant Research Ethics Committee and will be carried out using the NIHR Norfolk Clinical Research Facility in the Quadram Institute, which is managed by the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

A near-identical trial will also be carried out in parallel in Belgium by the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, with pseudo-anonymised data being combined from both studies.

Chief Investigator on the study Dr Paul Kroon from the Quadram Institute said: “Being able to grow vitamin B12 -enriched food plants in their own kitchen gardens and having access to a consumer app that provides users with bespoke recipes for iron-rich foods are two novel innovations that can support consumers in achieving their nutritional needs.”

“We are keen to find out how easy these innovations are to use, and whether they are effective in increasing intakes of these vital nutrients. If these prove useful there is the potential for these innovations to be expanded to address insufficiencies in other micronutrients such as selenium, calcium and iodine, and to extend hydroponic biofortification to farm-scale operations.”

Dr Olla Al-Jaibaji, Principal Investigator for the HARVEST Study said “We are looking to recruit women of child-bearing age who follow plant-based diets. We will give participants a hydroponics unit and the other materials they need to grow biofortified plants in their own homes and provide them with access to the app and all the bespoke recipes.”

“We will support participants throughout the study, and they can keep the hydroponics unit at the end of the study!”

Dr Antonietta Hayhoe, Human Study Lead said “It is a very exciting time for our team. We are really looking forward to working with our colleagues at the NIHR Norfolk Clinical Research Facility to test this innovative tool.”



 

The development of the innovative technologies and their testing in the HARVEST study has been funded by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a body of the European Union, under Horizon Europe, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, and by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council UK (BBSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

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