How NIZO food research deals with changes in the food industry
10 April 2019
In the previous article with Loek Nederstigt, we discussed his career and daily activities within NIZO. This article discusses the company structure and how every division delivers different expertise to the organisation. Each division focusses on sustainability and trends within their daily operations. Mr Nederstigt speaks about these sustainable ways of doing research and how NIZO keeps up with the developments in the food industry.
About NIZO food research
NIZO is a Contract Research Organisation (CRO) for the international food, ingredient and personal healthcare industry and consists of approximately 125 employees. The company is based in Ede, the heart of the Dutch Food Valley, and was established in 1948. NIZO started off as a foundation, funded by the Dutch dairy industry to conduct research and share the results with the sector. This was when NIZO became famous as the leading “dairy university”. Over the years, the hundreds of local dairy factories merged into large international organisations operating in an open market space and competing against each other. This asked for independent research projects. NIZO food research changed from a budget-driven semi-academic institute into a commercial CRO serving a wide variety of customers. Although the the company’s foundation was based on dairy, nowadays NIZO’s clients are active in several other food and health-related areas, such as: Personal Care & Pharma, Infant & Clinical, Food, and Beverage & Ingredients.
As a CRO, it is important to constantly be actively involved and to be the top player in the industry. As Mr Nederstigt says: “Clients usually have their own skilled R&D departments. One would expect our services as obsolete. However, we do get approached quite often. The reason for this is that we are more qualified in researching subjects and translating the gathered data into real solutions.” Mr Nederstigt mentioned multiple reasons for NIZO’s success. One prime reasons is the location of the company. “We are located in the heart of the food industry in the Netherlands. Besides, NIZO has one single location where all operations take place, enabling fast and efficient communication lines across disciplines. Furthermore, NIZO continuously takes action that increases their exposure within the food (sciences) industry. “The experts at our company visit our clients and congresses related to the industry. Besides that, we also organise our own events such as the NIZO Dairy Congress, training days, and we submit papers in scientific journals”. Finally, good project management is of utmost importance: “At the end of the day you simply have to deliver”.
Looking at the structure of the organisation, NIZO is divided into three operational divisions. The first operational division is aimed at food composition, resulting in tasteful and stable products. The second one is the processing & processing centre, which does research on the factory processing of ingredients into products and the optimization thereof. Health is the final division, which relates to the application of bacteria in the product and their effect on the human body. Lastly, the company has a business development department and supportive staff.
Developments in the industry and NIZO’s divisions
Mr Nederstigt mentioned that the growing world population and urbanisation have increased the importance of food companies. “Urbanisation increases the demand for ready-made food products since fewer people are able to cultivate their own food. This asks for new food applications and for that R&D is needed. At the same time, legislations and environmental issues force our clients to constantly adapt their production processes. You need to be able to re-invent yourself every day.” One way in which NIZO stays ahead of the competition is to develop a clear strategy with defined areas of expertise. The demand for more sustainable processes and products plays an important role in that.
Every division within NIZO has its own way of contributing to sustainability and being unique in doing so. Mr Nederstigt mentioned how the Flavour & Texture division develops solutions for trends such as the increasing demand for plant-based products. “What we see is that a lot of challenges can be solved by applying proteins. When the consumer wants less fat, the texture and mouthfeel of the product changes. By applying selected proteins as a substitute, fat reduction is possible without notably changing the texture of the product. Traditionally, proteins are mostly from an animal source, which is less sustainable. The Flavour & Texture division is searching for new products based on plant proteins, thereby unlocking a huge potential of healthy nutrients.”
The Processing/Processing Centre division concentrates on how ingredients are processed in the factory. Mr Nederstigt pointed out that the NIZO Pilot Plant bridges the gap between the test tube and the full-size factory. “Manipulating the processing is done partly in our pilot plant and partly through computer models developed at NIZO, which are able to predict the effects of production parameters on the product. In terms of sustainability: optimisation of the process can lead to less consumption of energy, water and less waste”. The food grade pilot plant at NIZO is open to any customer, unlike the facilities run by the big food companies.
Looking at the third division, Health, Mr Nederstigt spoke about the opportunity of bringing technological know-how from the Food to the Pharmaceutical industry. “Health has several aspects, but the correlation between food and intestinal health is especially interesting. We are becoming more aware of the diversity of bacteria present in the intestines, and what this means for the overall health of a person.” NIZO has the techniques and technology to take samples of complex bacteria populations. These samples deliver extensive amounts of data which are then analysed by the bioinformatics team within the health division of NIZO. “The technology used in our health department in analysing the microbiome in the intestines can easily be ported too, for example, research on skin microbiome. This allows the pharmaceutical industry to apply our knowledge in products for personal health care”. Other areas of research in the Health department that involve micro-organisms are fermentation and food safety.
NIZO and human challenge models
NIZO applies knowledge gained through research in the health department in the pharmaceutical sector as well. Next to developing applications for healthcare products, NIZO applies the knowledge in other ways such as human challenge models. In a human challenge model, the effect of a food ingredient on the immune system is tested by giving the ingredient to two groups of people. Both groups are given a weakened pathogen of the disease in question, after the tested ingredient is only given to one of them. The difference in reaction is predictive for the effectiveness of the final product in sickness prevention. These human challenge models at NIZO are often used to select potentially effective nutrients before bringing them to a clinical trial. These tests, therefore, save time and money spent on the trial.
Two years ago, NIZO has set-up a specific research group that concentrates on the establishment and active promotion of the human challenge models within the industry. These models give NIZO a unique market position, since they are one of the few Food Research organisations that apply their knowledge in such a way.