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Thai Scientists Use Stable Isotopes to Improve Food Labelling and Nutrition Programmes

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How some people in Thailand eat may soon change after updates to the country’s nutrition labels on food products and recommendations on nutrient intake. Scientists are now using stable isotope techniques as part of their efforts to help revise the country’s Dietary Reference Intake guidelines. (Photo: N. Jawerth/IAEA)

Bangkok, Thailand — Thai consumers will soon have access to more precise nutrition labelling on food products and recommendations on nutrient intake, thanks in part to scientific data collected using stable isotope techniques. This is part of the government’s efforts to revise its Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) — guidelines on recommended daily nutrient intake and which foods can fulfil that — to help ensure people are given the right advice. It will ensure that the country’s nutrition policies and programmes are based on up-to-date data.

“Thailand last updated its DRIs about 15 years ago, but a lot of new science related to nutrition has emerged, technology and methods have advanced, and nutrient intake has changed,” said Emorn Udomkesmalee, senior researcher and former director of the Institute of Nutrition of Mahidol University in Bangkok. “We now have tools such as stable isotope techniques, which means we can be far more precise when guiding people’s diets.”

The Institute of Nutrition — which has worked with the IAEA since 1996 — is the first agency in Thailand to provide complete analytical services for nutrition labelling. Its scientists have led research for developing Thailand’s DRIs and nutrition labelling, which were first introduced in 1989 and 1998, respectively. They are now using stable isotope techniques (see The Science box) and other methods to carry out a range of nutrition-related studies that constitute the basis for the revision of the DRIs. The new DRIs are expected to be rolled out starting from the end of 2018.

We now have tools such as stable isotope techniques, which means we can be far more precise when guiding people’s diets.
Emorn Udomkesmalee, senior researcher and former director, Institute of Nutrition, Mahidol University

Precise data for setting up nutrition and food guidelines

Scientists use an isotope ratio mass spectrometer to evaluate samples for nutrition studies related to micronutrient intake, body composition, breastfeeding practices, and how much energy a body uses and needs. (Photo: N. Jawerth/IAEA)

When setting up any nutrition guidelines, precision is important because DRIs influence people’s everyday lives, Udomkesmalee said. “When you set food-based dietary guidelines for people, you need to make sure that when you tell people ‘four portions of this food,’ it really meets the requirements of the nutrients and the energy for people of a certain age and activity level.”

DRIs influence everything related to nutrition in a country, from nutrient labels on food, food-based dietary guidelines and health programmes to food research and development. They are based on a rich mix of international and national data related to the human body’s daily need for energy, carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals.

The encyclopedia-sized guidance document is broken down by individual nutrient and each chapter is further sub-divided according to age, gender, and, when relevant, special groups that can be significantly influenced by the nutrition recommendations in the DRIs.

When developing national DRIs, scientists often pull from international data that applies to human bodies globally, but this does not always capture a country’s exact needs, said Wantanee Kriengsinyos, associate professor at the Institute who oversees studies on energy expenditure and body composition.

“Fifteen years ago we borrowed DRI data on energy from western countries, for example, but now we are finding that the levels are too high for Thai people, and generally Asian populations. If we keep using this older, borrowed data, we’re going to be twice as huge because the diet is too energy dense,” explained Kriengsinyos. “We need to revise how much people really need based on their energy expenditure, and we are validating these values using stable isotopes.”

While Thailand can refine existing data to ensure the DRIs fit its population at large, in other cases, specific data has to be collected to address the needs of certain groups particular to Thailand.

This is the case, for instance, for hemoglobinopathy, explained Udomkesmalee. This is a genetic defect that causes iron overload. It affects around 7% of the world’s population and is most common in the populations of Africa, the Mediterranean basin and Southeast Asia. “If one-third of Thailand’s vulnerable population in the northeast has this condition, we have to ask: will iron fortified food hurt them? The only way to answer this is by using stable isotope techniques to study iron absorption.”

The scientists have found that iron-fortified food is not a problem in the carrier of the hemoglobinopathy genes, but it can be for those people with the full-blown disease. The findings of this study will be included in Thailand’s DRIs.

Nutrition around Southeast Asia

Thailand’s revised DRIs will help reshape food intake throughout the country; however, these changes can have implications that go beyond borders.

“We have to be very careful when revising the DRIs. If you are going to launch changes like this, particularly as an ASEAN country, you are not only going to affect Thailand using Thai DRIs, but all the foods and products coming out of Thailand. If the DRIs on nutrition labelling are very different from what the other countries are setting as their standards, they won’t accept it and it could affect trade,” Udomkesmalee said. “So the DRIs will be carefully reviewed and checked to ensure they have a strong scientific basis, but also to ensure they will fit smoothly into regional standards.”

Food labelling as one policy response to growing rates of overweight and obesity will be further discussed during the upcoming International Symposium on Understanding the Double Burden of Malnutrition for Effective Interventions, to take place from 10 to 13 December 2018.

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