The 5th International Conference on Polyphenols and Health will bring together over 700 researchers from around the world to discuss the latest findings on the polyphenolic components of food and their role in disease prevention and health promotion. The conference, to be held from 17-20 October in Sitges, will be directed by the expert Cristina Andrés-Lacueva, a lecturer with the Department of Nutrition and Bromatology at the Faculty of Pharmacy of the University of Barcelona. The official opening of the conference will take place on 17 October at 3 p.m. and will be attended by Dr. Claudi Mans, Delegate Coordinator of the Torribera Food and Nutrition Campus.
Polyphenols are substances found in a large number of plants and plant-based food products, such as fruits and berries, juices, wine, coffee, tea and chocolate. Consumption of polyphenols has been linked to the incidence of common health issues including cardiovascular disease, specific cancer types and neurological and degenerative disorders. Research into polyphenols and their effects on human health has traditionally focused on the antioxidant properties of these substances.
Opportunity to sample olive oil caviar
Olive oil is among the healthiest elements of our diet and one of the most important food products in Spain. As part of the conference activities, a tasting session will be held on 19 at 10.15 a.m. where participants will be able to sample a traditional olive oil served in the form of caviar, an innovative idea developed by Ferran Adrià at El Bulli. This is the first large-scale public presentation of the product and will be given by Jaume Biarnes, manager of the culinary research centre at the Alícia Foundation. The conference programme also features a late lunch, prepared using foods rich in natural antioxidants, organized by Unilever (18 October at 3.30 p.m.)
Polyphenols: not just natural antioxidants
This year's edition of the conference will focus on the health benefits of polyphenols beyond their widely acknowledge antioxidant properties. There is now considerable evidence that these substances are capable of a much wider range of functions. The conference program places particular importance on the mechanisms through which polyphenols act on the human body and some of the most specific effects, such as reducing inflammation, acting on the immune system, altering hormone activity, cardiovascular protection and alterations of certain neurological processes, diabetes, obesity and cancer.
The conference will be opened by Dr. Gary Williamson (School of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Leeds, UK), the organizer of the previous edition, with the keynote address "Polyphenols and health: from Leeds to Barcelona and beyond". Dr. Williamson will discuss the importance of clinical trials in humans to verify that the health benefits observed in people with diets rich in polyphenols are genuinely attributable to these substances, which would pave the way for including polyphenols in health recommendations and guidelines published by professional organizations and public bodies.
One of the foremost clinical trials currently underway is PREDIMED ("Prevention with the Mediterranean Diet"), a Spanish research programme that compares the health impact of a polyphenol-rich Mediterranean diet with a low-fat diet. Complex, expensive studies of this type are crucial for providing more conclusive data on the protective effects of polyphenols in human health.
Intestinal bacteria, under the microscope
What routes do polyphenols take when they are ingested? How are they transformed and which organs or tissues can they be found in? The answers to these questions are the key to learning more about the mechanisms of action of polyphenols in the human body. Much of the conference programme will focus on the metabolic processes through which polyphenols are converted, an important research area contributed to by a large number of scientists across the world. According to experts, one of the principal agents in this process is our intestinal bacteria, capable of converting phenolic compounds into new substances that may have a demonstrable impact on the pathological processes involved in disease development.
As Dr. Cristina Andrés-Lacueva explains, "Intestinal bacteria are real wizards of chemistry, converting polyphenols and other substances into potentially beneficial compounds. The diversity of the bacteria found in human intestines is enormous and varies between individuals, so the effects of the components that are ingested may differ depending on the microbial flora of the person in question. This is why it is important to understand the microorganism profiles, or intestinal microbiome, of individuals."
Powerful genomic methods for identifying bacterial types have formed the basis of research in this field to date, and recent advances in the area of analytical techniques have created new tools for studying the metabolome, to identify the diversity of compounds (metabolites) present in the human body with potential health benefits. Thanks to the research potential of these new techniques, a number of scientists - including Dr. Augustin Scalbert, from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, Lyon, France), who works with groups from the University of Alberta (Canada) and the University of Barcelona - are compiling electronic metabolite databases, which they hope will establish parallels between studies of new compounds and existing research in the literature to improve our capacity to predict effects on the human body. "As yet there is not sufficient understanding to define specific nutritional recommendations for the consumption of polyphenols," explains Dr. Augustin Scalbert. "Research should be directed towards a molecular approach. Identifying molecular targets could help to determine causality in population studies."
Individual responses to polyphenols
Another area of innovative research focuses on predicting the responses of different people to polyphenols. Questions remain about the validity of population-wide responses obtained from epidemiological studies focusing on the consumption of certain foodstuffs and the incidence of diseases. However, it has been seen that each individual may present a different response to polyphenols, which has led to studies of what is now called personalized nutrition. This new approach - not yet consolidated but on a firm footing - could help people to improve their own health by incorporating foods rich in certain substances (in this case, polyphenols) into their diets.
Recent research has generated scientific data that can be used to determine the health properties of polyphenol-rich foods, which will have major repercussions not only for consumers but also for the food industry, where it will provide a source of added value in the promotion and distribution of products. Dr. Peter Aggett (University of Lancaster, UK) will present an overview of health declarations and the supplements and superfoods market.
The first edition of the International Conference on Polyphenols and Health was held in 2003 in Vichy (France) under the direction of Dr. Augustin Scalbert, from IARC. Since then, the conference has been held every other year in a different international city. At the fourth edition, which took place in Leeds in 2009, it was decided that the 2011 conference would be directed by Dr. Andrés-Lacueva, from the Faculty of Pharmacy of the UB.