Welcome to the third in our series of interviews with the team behind Humanativ. This month we caught up with Eva Lewis, Head of Food Innovation.
As Head of Food Innovation at Humanativ what does your role entail, and how did you get to where you are today?
Food innovation at Humanativ is all about taking what we consider to be extremely nutritious meat and eggs and looking at what we can do to make them even more nutritious. Our flagship project focuses on enriching the diet of animals with omega-3 DHA in the most natural and sustainable way. The animals then express that DHA in their meat and eggs; so that the consumer that eats the final product, increases their omega-3 DHA levels and over time will experience the health benefits associated with it. The omega-3 DHA in the animal’s diet benefits them too!
Day-to-day my role varies – I look at different animal species and production systems, and work alongside our research partners to explore the most natural, efficient, and sustainable method for enriching the diets of the animals.
Mine is a really diverse role, which I love. I work with technical people in research and professors in universities (both animal- and human-related), but I also work closely with the sales and commercial teams to tailor our product to suit individual customer needs. I need to be able to communicate with both sides, understanding the science but also how that translates on the commercial side. This means that I get to see many different perspectives and working with such clever people it means I’m constantly learning!
How did I get here? I’m a city girl born and bred and all I ever wanted to do was work with animals! Inspired by my uncle who worked for Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority, I studied agricultural science in University College Dublin and specialised in animal science. And inspired by my godfather, who had a PhD, I went on to complete a PhD in Pig Behaviour and Welfare.
My first “real” job was working with a global premix company as part of their R&D team in Brussels. It was a great opportunity which specifically focused on ruminant nutrition, helping to run their dairy cow nutrition research programme, and supporting their commercial ruminant nutrition team internationally. I continued to work for them when I returned to Ireland as a technical manager, focusing on the pig industry from a commercial capacity. I then went full circle and joined Teagasc as a dairy cow nutrition research scientist, based in Moorepark, the flagship research centre for dairy production in Ireland where I remained for many years.
Then one day, I came across the job description for Food Innovation Manager at Devenish – I instantly knew it was for me! I went on to become Head of Food Innovation at Devenish which had a huge focus on omega-3 DHA so naturally when Humanativ was formed I moved over to be Head of Food Innovation there.
The concept of Humanativ is based around a human health concern, a deficiency in omega-3 DHA which currently affects 80% of the population. Could you explain what omega-3 DHA is and why is it so important for human health?
Simply put, omega-3 DHA is a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) and is recognised as being an extremely important nutrient. It is vital for heart, vision, and brain health and it’s also an anti-inflammatory. It plays a crucial role in our body throughout our life stages: in utero, in infancy, childhood, adulthood and into older age. For example, it plays a key role in the brain development of the foetus. It also plays an important role in children’s ability to concentrate in school, and then for older people it helps protect against degenerative diseases of the brain like Alzheimer’s.
How do we get omega-3 DHA and how do we know if we’re deficient in it?
Omega-3 DHA is available in oily fish like salmon and mackerel. It’s recommended that we consume two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily.
Traditionally this one portion of oily fish per week would have provided all the omega-3 DHA that we need. However, fish production systems today don’t always utilise diets high in omega-3 DHA, and therefore the fish we eat provides us with less omega-3 DHA than it used to. Aside from this, many people don’t like the taste of oily fish, particularly children. Two years ago, there was a study which found that just one quarter of the UK population consumed oily fish, and only 4.4% of 4–11-year-olds met the recommendations for oily fish consumption. So, it’s no wonder that 80% of the world’s population doesn’t consume the recommended amount of omega-3 DHA. Knowing all the benefits of omega-3 DHA, I find this a very scary statistic.
Could you tell us more about the research behind Humanativ?
The research behind Humanativ started long before the company was formed. The worldwide deficiency in omega-3 DHA was known, and we wanted to find out if omega-3 DHA could be provided to the end consumer, using more commonly eaten foods like chicken and eggs. We did a lot of research into how to do this in the most natural, efficient and sustainable way. And summarising all that work into three words…we cracked it! But the next step was to ensure that this omega-3 DHA was bioavailable to the consumer which just means “can the person’s body utilise the nutrient”. To do this we set up a pilot study. This was a small group of people who consumed omega-3 DHA enriched chicken over a three-month period. They had a blood sample taken at the start and end of the study. We found that their omega-3 index (the best indicator of your omega 3 status) had increased statistically over the three-month period. The results were so striking that we decided to do a gold standard full human intervention study.
A world-first clinical trial led by Prof Alice Stanton and colleagues at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, on behalf of Humanativ, was conducted. This trial was a double blinded, human intervention study which meant that nobody participating in the study, either consuming the products or involved from the medical side, knew who was getting the standard or enriched chicken and eggs. At the very end of the study when all the results were analysed and put together, it was “unblinded”, revealing who ate what and what their results were. The participants had consumed chicken and eggs for six months and the research proved that the regular consumption of naturally enriched omega-3 DHA chicken and eggs could improve your omega-3 index and lower both heart rate, and very importantly blood pressure. We are really proud of this research, and you can read more about the results here: https://humanativ.com/news/2021/05/06/human-health-improvement-the-evidence/
Does omega-3 enriched meat and eggs taste any different?
No, there is no difference in the taste of omega-3 DHA enriched chicken or eggs. Part of our research programme always includes doing sensory analysis – this is where consumers blindly had to taste both standard and enriched chicken and fill out a form about their thoughts on the taste, smell, succulence, and flavour of the meat. We found there was no difference between standard and omega-3 DHA enriched chicken.
Humanativ enables food producers to make on-pack health claims around heart, brain, and vision health – can you explain this in more detail?
An on-pack health claim is a statement about the positive effect a product can have on health – all health claims must be approved and are carefully regulated. Through the dietary enrichment of meat and eggs, Humanativ works with producers to increase the omega-3 DHA levels of their final food products to the point that a health claim associated with omega-3 DHA can be made. So, for example they could say omega-3 DHA contributes to the normal functioning of the heart, the maintenance of normal vision and the maintenance of normal brain function, or is a source of omega-3 DHA, but they cannot claim or imply that it will prevent or cure any diseases or medical conditions.
What are your main hobbies and interests outside of work?
I always like to be honest! So, the truth is that although I strive to achieve a healthy work life balance, I probably fail miserably! I have a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old so when I’m not working, I’m with them; and if I’m not with them, I’m working! I love my family and I love my work, and whichever I’m doing I try to lose myself in at that moment. I have great friends who are always there for a “car park coffee” or a chat on the phone, and even sometimes a night away!