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Ulster Nutrition Research Helping to Shape Health Policies in China

13 November 2012

Professor Sean Strain, who is Professor of Human Nutrition and Director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Food & Health (NICHE) at Ulster’s Coleraine campus, has just returned from China where he delivered two keynote addresses as part of the “World Famous Scientists' Lectures in Hubei" at the Hubei Normal University in Hubei Province, Central China.

During his visit, Professor Strain was appointed as an Honorary Professor of Hubei Normal University and his visit underlines the strong research links between the University of Ulster and China. He was invited to China under the auspices of Confucius Institute of the University of Ulster (CIUU) which was established in September 2011 to forge academic, cultural, economic and social ties between Northern Ireland and China.

Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are currently on a trade mission to China this week, further evidence of the growing links between the two countries.

An internationally respected nutrition scientist, Professor Strain is the current President of the Nutrition Society, the largest learned society for nutrition in Europe. His specific research interests are in three key areas: the role of riboflavin (vitamin B2) in reducing a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke; the nutritional benefits of vitamin D and the risk benefits of fish consumption during pregnancy.

Professor Strain’s lectures in Hubei were entitled "Vitamins and blood pressure control: a novel gene-nutrient interaction" and "European Approaches to the substantiation of health claims on food”.

High blood pressure is the leading cause of stroke and heart disease which, together, are responsible for about one-third of all deaths in Northern Ireland.Professor Strain said that one in ten people in Northern Ireland, depending on their genes, could significantly lower their blood pressure and, in turn, their risk of heart disease and stroke by increasing their intake of vitamin B2.

“Vitamin B2 or riboflavin, which is found in dairy products can reduce high blood pressure in people with a particular genetic factor which is found in about 10% of the population in Northern Ireland.”

Professor Strain is Vice-Chair of the Nutrition Panel of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) - the keystone of European Union (EU) risk assessment regarding food safety - and Chair of the Working Group on Health Claims.

The EFSA works in close collaboration with stakeholders in member states to provide independent scientific advice and clear communication on food safety.Addressing the audience in Hubei, Professor Strain outlined how food health claims are substantiated in EU member states.

He said: “There are some parallels between the approach to food safety issues in China and in the EU and also some important differences. My talk was focused on health claims substantiation within Europe. How scientific evidence is evaluated transcends international borders”

Since taking on the Presidency of the Nutrition Society, Professor Strain has been working hard to raise the Society’s international links. In additional to links with China, he has also established official links withthe US,Taiwan, South Korea, China, Australia and Africa. On a European level, he has been instrumental in forming official agreements with Nutrition Societies in Germany, Belgium and France.

Nutrition research at Ulster has formed a significant part of the University’s Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) submission in Biomedical Sciences since 1989. TheBiomedical Sciences submissionhas been ranked 1st in the UK in the RAE of 1996 and 2001, and in the last RAE in 2008 Biomedical Sciences, including the research undertaken within NICHE, was ranked 1st in research power.