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Dr Robert Lustig at the Future Food Tech Conference in San Francisco
Dr. Robert Lustig. Image credit: Elaine Watson

🎥 ‘Feed the gut, protect the liver, support the brain…’ Dr. Robert Lustig’s strategy to re-engineer ultra-processed foods

April 12, 2023

Reformulation strategies at leading food companies typically involve reducing salt, fat, and sugar. A more effective approach, claims pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig, is informed by three core principles underpinning metabolic health: protect the liver, feed the gut, support the brain.

Dr Lustig, professor emeritus in the Department of Pediatrics and Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), joined forces with academics at King’s College London and George Washington University to test this ‘metabolic matrix’ strategy at leading Kuwaiti food company Kuwaiti Danish Dairy Company (KDD).

“We evaluated products based on their metabolic impact rather than on their nutritional content,” Dr. Lustig told AFN at the Future Food Tech conference in San Francisco, where he was representing BioLumen, a startup with a fiber-based supplement that can reduce the absorption of sugars in processed foods.

While the Nutrition Facts label is valuable, he said, looking at ingredients rather than nutrients “enables us to take a refined stance on additives according to current research on their potential harmfulness. It also allows us to precisely determine levels of processing levels rather than trying to derive them from nutrient profiles.”

He added: “Our criteria of how ingredients in a particular product might contribute to an adverse health impact focused on detriments to gut, liver, and brain function, the systems with the most significant impact on overall metabolism and disease.”

The ‘metabolic matrix’

The authors’ hope is that the work—outlined in a new paper in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition—could serve as a blueprint for other CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies.

“The metabolic matrix categorizes each product and provides the criteria, metrics, and recommendations for improvement or reformulation,” added Dr. Lustig, author of several popular science books including ‘Fat Chance: Beating the Odds against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease.’

He added: “We worked with the team at KDD to research and reimagine their entire 180-item portfolio to develop best-in-class food and beverages that support metabolic health and well-being.

“This process is easily transferrable, and we are sharing this effort and its approaches as a proof-of-concept. The aim is to not only make ultra-processed food healthier but to urge other food companies to implement similar analysis and reformulation of their product lines to improve the metabolic health and well-being of consumers worldwide.”

“The Western diet is characterized as the habitual consumption of ultra-processed food products, characterized by an elevated intake of omega-6 fatty acids, which in excess can promote inflammation,  with simultaneous insufficiency in brain-essential omega-3 fats, excessive sugar and sodium, reduced micronutrient intake, and a high intake of refined carbohydrates.” The Metabolic Matrix: Re-engineering ultra-processed foods to feed the gut, protect the liver, and support the brain (Frontiers in Nutrition, 2023).

‘We evaluated products based on their metabolic impact rather than on their nutritional content’

According to the paper, “Ultra-processed foods are detrimental to human health across several parameters, including macronutrient and micronutrient composition, fiber, effects of food additives, toxins, heat exposure, and packaging.

“We believe that to make ultra-processed food healthier, a more scientific approach that considers the various metabolic effects of food ingredients and processing is required. Instead of ‘Can we make healthy food tasty?,’ we asked ‘Can we make tasty food healthy?'”

“Ultra-processed foods are only cheap when the costs of their negative metabolic impact are externalized to health care and public health budgets.” The Metabolic Matrix: Re-engineering ultra-processed foods to feed the gut, protect the liver, and support the brain (Frontiers in Nutrition, 2023).

So what does applying the metabolic matrix mean in practice for product developers creating new products or reformulating existing ones?

“The biggest toxin to the liver is sugar, which is a primary driver of chronic metabolic disease and unfortunately also the primary component of ultra-processed food,” Dr. Lustig told AFN. “74% of items in the American grocery store are ultra-processed and spiked with sugar, and it’s no better in the UK, Australia, or virtually any other Western society. So how do you protect the liver? You’ve got to get the sugar down.

“Some sugar is necessary as artificial sweeteners do not activate that reward center in the brain, so we had to have a little bit of sugar left in the product. Based on the scientific literature, we settled on one teaspoon of sugar per serving.

“That’s not enough for yogurts or ice cream or flavored milks, so then we would need a sweetness extender. Kuwait has not [yet] approved allulose, which we think is probably the safest of the non-nutritive sweeteners on the market. In the meantime, we have chosen to use erythritol… but ultimately, we think allulose will be the answer.”

Looking at prong two of the strategy—feed the gut—he said, “The primary driver of a healthy gut is fiber. Fiber is the prebiotic that creates the probiotic that generates the postbiotic… that is short chain fatty acids.”

For prong three—support the brain—he said, “There are many brain-specific nutrients such as zinc and selenium, and we also have to get [long-chain omega-3 fatty acids] EPA and DHA into the diet.”

Read the paper in Frontiers in Nutrition: ‘The Metabolic Matrix: Re-engineering ultra-processed foods to feed the gut, protect the liver, and support the brain.’ Scientific advisory team members were paid as consultants by KDD but reported directly to Dr. Lustig, the chair of the team, who was not paid.

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