Andreu Farran «Food products are improving, but it all depends on consumer demands»
Andreu Farran, a biologist who specializes in nutrition, is part of the Applied Nutrition team of the Physical Activity and Health Research Group of the University of Barcelona. The team has developed PCN Pro, a software tool for calculating and analysing the intake data and body composition of different people.
What is PCN Pro?
PCN Pro is a program we developed at the Torribera campus that makes nutritional calculations based on what people eat. The patient is interviewed about what he or she has eaten in the last few days, and all this information is entered into the program, which then assesses which nutrients result from the food the person has eaten. The program also allows us to enter anthropometric data, such as height, weight, skin folds, and the diameter of different body parts, and thanks to this information we can calculate, for example, the body mass index. In addition, it is also possible to use validated formulas to calculate the amount of body fat and lean mass, among other parameters.
PCN Pro was created in collaboration with the Sant Cugat High Performance Centre, which needed a software application with very specific functions to manage the diet of athletes. This is why the program also makes it possible to assess energy expenditure. This is of interest both to athletes, who sometimes do not ingest the energy required to maintain their intensive physical activity, and to dietitians, who deal with common patients who need to control their energy intake. Based on anthropometric data, the program can calculate an individual’s energy expenditure based on the activities he or she performs throughout the week.
Who is it aimed at?
The program generates a lot of data, which must then be interpreted, and therefore it is aimed at professionals in the sector: nutritionists, food technologists, doctors, and nurses who may be interested in assessing the nutrient intake of individuals and groups of individuals. For the time being, the Hospital del Mar Institute for Medical Research (IMIM) and the Catalan Institute of Oncology (ICO) have acquired licences to use the software, and there are companies that have also acquired it to control group menus, catering, meals in school canteens, and so on. Several small food manufacturing companies also use it.
We wanted to create a teaching tool that would meet quality standards that we did not find in the programs available on the market. That is why we designed a very intuitive and easy to use application. In fact, we give the program to students so that they can use it throughout their degree, but many of them later continue to use it in their professional life.
How does PCN Pro differ from competing programs?
Many similar programs use foreign databases, which is a mistake, as they should use composition data for Spanish food products, and others use very incomplete databases that do not include the complete composition of each food product. This results in poor quality information. We have avoided this by ensuring that the composition database included in our software is as complete as possible so that the program can make a very precise estimate of nutrient intake. In addition, our program allows the user to introduce the food products that may be missing in a simple way.
The group also includes dietitians, who have provided guidelines on what information should be introduced into the program and how. For example, they were the ones who made one of the most interesting contributions, that is, the option of introducing traditional measures such as a cup of milk; the program itself converts this cup of milk into 200 grams.
Has the composition of food changed over the years?
Yes, it has changed a lot. In the 1990s, when evidence was found that trans fatty acids had adverse health effects, a project was launched to analyse the trans fatty acid content of many European food products. The publication of these data showed that there were many products with high levels of these acids, which was not sufficiently justified. The food industry set to work in order to reduce this content.
Food products are improving, but this also depends on consumer demands. If the consumer does not demand food of a certain quality, the food industry is fine with the food it produces. And until we nutritionists have enough knowledge to determine the effect of certain components on food, we cannot assess how important it is to change the composition of a food product. We keep learning more and more about food and how we can improve it. Right now we want to launch a project with the Catalan Institute of Oncology (ICO) to carry out research into the components present in foods that can cause certain types of cancer. This project aims to study the components in cured and red meats that may be responsible for an increased risk of colon cancer. Until we determine what these components are, we will not be able to apply a solution and we will not be able to transmit it to the industry so that it manufactures better quality cured meats. It is a long and costly process, but it is nonetheless necessary.
What else does the research group work on?
We are collaborating with FC Barcelona in two areas: sports gastronomy and the study of the nutritional knowledge of athletes. In the field of sports gastronomy, we try to adapt the recipes to ensure that athletes consume all the nutrients they need. This often consists in modifying textures and producing food with a high concentration of nutrients. The two people working on this are Xavier Torrado and Montserrat Illàn, two members of the team who are cooks and are studying how to improve these recipes. Moreover, we have realized that many times top athletes have misconceptions about their diet. For example, many women athletes restrict their intake a lot because they think it is important for sports practice to appear sinewy, and that is very difficult for women. Trying to reduce the energy intake to reduce the deposit of body fat can end up leading to metabolic problems and a decrease in athletic performance. We have researched the nutritional knowledge of athletes and tried to improve it through specific training actions.
We also advise companies on how to deal with food composition data within their IT systems and how to manage them.
How important is knowledge transfer?
It is very important. For many years we have had little connection with companies. Today, fortunately, we have the FBG, which cares a lot about this and helps us find companies that may be interested in the knowledge we generate. The truth is that we always have a lot on our plate because of classes, research, and management, and it would really be very complicated for us to undertake all the work involved in knowing the business world, the issue of licenses, and patents on top of that; we would be totally overwhelmed. A support like the one that FBG provides is very important to be able to establish contacts with the industry and with the institutions that may be interested in the knowledge that we generate and in collaborating with us in the generation of knowledge.
More about Andreu Farran
The best advancement in history?
Among past advances I would choose the scientific method, as it allows us to generate knowledge. Prior to this, I would point to the ability of humankind to assume technology as a way of transforming the environment in which they lived.
An advancement you are afraid of?
I am quite concerned about the issue of genetic engineering. We have acquired the capacity to generate very rapid changes, and it is sometimes difficult to assess their potential impact. We should not leave these aside, but they have to be studied very well and used with seriousness and for the benefit of the community, and not for the benefit of particular interests.
What would you like to see?
Space travel. It is logical to think that in our investigation of what the universe is, we have to move on to other worlds in order to continue exploring.
The FBG is…
…a very important support for researchers when we want to transfer knowledge and collaborate with external agents. It is fundamental, and hopefully it will develop more and become more important with more people and better resources to be able to do even more things.