Prebiotics in forgotten vegetables


On 12 September, UCLouvain Prof. Nathalie Delzenne presented FOOD4GUT’s conclusions and prospects. An interdisciplinary project funded by the Walloon Region, FOOD4GUT focuses on sustainable development in obesity prevention. After five years of work, it has found the means to propose innovative food and societal approaches. The interdisciplinary nature of this research, which combines expertise in the human, medical and technological sciences, creates promise in the nutrition sector.

The intestinal microbiota, formerly called the intestinal flora, is vital to our health and the subject of research in our laboratories. While obesity and associated pathologies are the subject of particular attention in public health – given the dramatic consequences for quality of life and the societal costs of related pathologies (diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers) – this intestinal ‘second brain’ is a promising target of research for therapeutic solutions.

‘The microbiota numbers nearly a hundred trillion bacteria, more than a thousand different species living in our intestines’, Prof. Delzenne says. ‘They form a real ecosystem with which we live in symbiosis. In recent years, the development of techniques, such as the sequencing of the bacterial genome, has revealed the importance of the bacterial ecosystem – but also its constant evolution, influenced by the host, the environment and especially diet – to health.’

It’s in this context of flourishing nutrition research that the Walloon Region supported the FOOD4GUT project, coordinated by Prof. Delzenne, chair of the UCLouvain Louvain Drug Research Institute (LDRI) and co-director of the Metabolism and Nutrition Research Group (MNUT). The project, titled ‘Innovative Nutritional Approach to Obesity Based on Colon Nutrient Supply (Prebiotics): Biological, Behavioral and Societal Aspects’, aims to determine how to ‘feed’ the microbiota to improve its health and disseminate these good practices among the population. The FOOD4GUT project aims more generally to promote plant-based foods rich in colonic nutrients (prebiotics) and derived from Walloon agriculture.

Inulin: a prebiotic vital to our good health

‘Inulin-type prebiotics are among the elements that have been identified as beneficial to the microbiota,’ Prof. Delzenne continues. ‘In UCLouvain's MNUT laboratory, we worked a lot on these dietary components. Our working hypothesis in the project was that promoting the cultivation and consumption of plant-based foods rich in inulin can benefit health.’

Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, onions, artichokes – roots that are often called ‘forgotten vegetables’ – are rich in inulin, a molecule that our body doesn’t digest but that certain bacteria in our intestine do, with relish. ‘With such nourishment, the bacteria can change the gut microbiota and thus have an impact on the host’s general health’, Prof. Delzenne says.

Do these foods exist in Wallonia? Do they contain enough inulin to influence health? Can we develop and promote these foods via a short supply chain? Are they well tolerated by consumers from a biological point of view? Can we influence their acceptance and accessibility? Many questions have resulted in interdisciplinary research, by dieticians, diabetologists, and agronomy, law, and psychology researchers – a range of academic and scientific partners have learned to interact with each other. The FOOD4GUT project has networked several UCLouvain MNUT and EDIN teams in health sciences, ELIA teams in science and technology, PJTD and IPSY teams in human sciences, as well as teams from ULB, ULiège, and three university hospitals (Saint-Luc, Erasmus and CHU Liège). Walloon agro-industrial and civil society sponsors have also contributed. ‘I wanted this project to come together around innovative research questions in nutrition’, Prof. Delzenne says. She salutes the work of everyone, especially post-doctoral students involved in managing this large-scale project: B. Pachikian, J. Rodriguez and A. Neyrinck.

Research applicable to a wide variety of foods and prebiotics

The project mapped production systems and the consumption of colonic nutrient sources grown in Wallonia. It also focused on characterising the nutrients’ biological impact on health in preclinical and clinical approaches to overweight patients. Next, issues related to the promotion of individual and societal change were discussed.

‘We reached our goal: we identified criteria for individual and societal behavioural change, highlighting the contribution of a particular food category (in this case, plant-based prebiotic colonic nutrients) to improved public health’, Prof. Delzenne says. ‘Now that we have been able to clearly establish and name foods rich in inulin and their importance, we’ll provide researchers with proven tools – questionnaires, databases, preclinical models, in vivo, biostatistical analyses – and the general public with a list of foods and recipes rich in inulin which can be used in other contexts. The project will continue via the partnerships that we created between research and university sectors.’ Wallonia-based experts are already embarking on many innovative projects. ‘The FOOD4GUT approach is indeed applicable to a great diversity of dietary constituents: inulin is just one of many.’


The project in figures

  • 50 people directly involved

  • 10 academic partners

  • 9 industrial sponsors and institutions

  • 3 university hospitals

  • 10 new doctors

  • 26 scientific papers already accepted and many in preparation

  • 9 new projects in the wake of FOOD4GUT

  • 135 presentations at Belgian and international conferences


TEDxLiège : Nathalie Delzenne explains the importance of dietary fibre

(1) Prebiotic: substrate selectively used by ‘host’ microorganisms that confer a health benefit
(2) Inuline : dietary fibre composed of fructose units that resist digestion but are widely and selectively fermented by the intestinal bacteria necessary for our good health

A glance at Nathalie Delzenne's bio

Nathalie Delzenne is a professor of biochemistry, metabolism and nutrition at UCLouvain. For more than 25 years she has been leading a research team that aims to better understand the health impact of dietary components that interact with the gut microbiota. She graduated from UCLouvain as a pharmacist in 1986, then completed a PhD in pharmaceutical science in the field of toxicology. After postdoctoral training in human nutrition at the University of Lausanne, she began her academic career in 1995. Residencies at Lille’s Pasteur Institute and the INSERM Unit at the Hôpital Saint Vincent de Paul in Paris led to her research at UCLouvain in experimental nutrition aimed at discovering the therapeutic value of nutrients that interact with the gut microbiota, in different physiopathological contexts (obesity, diabetes, cachexia).

Published on September 17, 2019