Nutrition Research: Key to Economic Growth in the Scottish Food and Drink Sector

Published on 31 January 2013 in Food, health and wellbeing

Research at the University of Aberdeen Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health (RINH) is underpinning the economic objectives of the Scottish National Food and Drink Policy, reinforcing the reputation of the sector and significantly improving business performance in key areas such as research and development (R+D) activity. Health, Provenance and Premium are the three drivers for growth and RINH is a core partner in two key initiatives helping to deliver these; the Food and Health Innovation Service and Interface Food and Drink


Key Challenges

Healthy eating is a major public health challenge but also offers a massive opportunity for businesses to expand, or to create additional value from new or reformulated products. The Scottish food and drink sector is dominated (80%) by small companies. Their reputation is strong, but they have a very low level of R+D and historically have not turned to public research for help. Through key initiatives we have developed innovative systems and mechanisms which are successfully addressing this.

Key Benefits

This activity has impacted directly on the economic performance of the food and drink sector in Scotland, helping companies to identify and realise opportunities for new and reformulated products, and for improved growth and business performance from products based on healthy eating and drinking. Further, it has stimulated companies to change their culture and attitudes toward innovation, research and development.  The impacts from these activities are reflected directly in official statistics monitoring the progress of the National Food and Drink Policy (NFDP).

The public health consequences of poor nutrition are well documented. For example current data suggests that 60% of the Scottish population are overweight or obese.  The trend is reflected cross the developed economies and is fast becoming evident in emerging economies e.g. ‘BRIC’ countries.  Public health-based behaviour change strategies have limited success in addressing these problems and are slow to impact. Engagement with the industry to develop new or reformulated products can have a more immediate impact through ‘health by stealth’ and offers more cost effective options than clinical solutions. In addition there are opportunities for businesses to diversify and expand activity away from highly cost sensitive products. The UK healthy eating market is currently estimated at £20 bn pa with the global market closer to £300bn, both growing.

There is potential for Scottish companies to enter these markets, with their established reputation for health, provenance and quality. However as a sector dominated by SMEs most need assistance to identify and realise opportunities relevant to their business expertise and capacity. RINH was a founding partner in the Food and Health Innovation Service (FHIS) which addresses this. FHIS is a 5 year, £4.5M project delivered across Scotland providing specialist support. It was developed following detailed global benchmarking by RINH, Scottish Enterprise and other partners of best practice. It is a key element of the economic growth strategy in the NFDP, driven by Scotland Food and Drink (SFD).

RINH provides underpinning support to the project team and to participating companies in the key area of nutrition and health. Other members provide manufacturing, regulatory and marketing support.  RINH provides detailed reports, scientific briefings, workshops and conferences to the wider community and works on a one-to-one basis with participating companies to guide them through their personal journeys.  In addition to awareness building via twitter, email and hard mailing to companies, reports, briefing notes and workshop proceedings are posted on a public website.

RINH has helped create a successful and valuable tool to accelerate economic growth and which also provides a potential route to help address major public health issues.

In the first two years around 200 companies have started this journey with almost half having some form of direct interaction with RINH. For many starting off their journey this involves updates on the latest research being undertaken under the Scottish-Government funded programmes and how this can be applied in their own setting.  For others with more detailed and specific objectives there are one-to-one meetings with companies to discuss specific issues in more detail. These often involve other FHIS team members to ensure the manufacturing or marketing implications of nutrition and health are considered together. These discussions are leading to continued collaborations, often with single companies, but increasingly with common issues and opportunities being identified across supply chains leading to consortia based approaches.

Interface Food and Drink (IFD), supported with £2.6M from the Scottish Funding Council (SFD), complements  FHIS, extending the scope to include other areas of academic expertise relevant to the sector. IFD brings together 17 HEIs across Scotland with a common mission and is delivered through a distributed team of specialists based around Scotland, led by RINH and Interface. IFD supports translation and collaboration through workshops, interest groups and small project grants designed to meet small company needs.

Each programme forms part of the SFD strategic action plan for innovation. They work closely together to ensure co-ordinated and demand-led delivery. Success in their first years is evidenced by Scottish Government statistics. Most recent data for 2011 shows industry research activity rising to £14M from £9M in 2010, having been static for a number of years. This reflects improved levels of awareness of our research and increased confidence in its value. This is being translated into higher R&D spend and more collaborative working. It is also contributing to other performance measures such new product launches, company new starts and exports.

RINH has helped create a successful and valuable tool to accelerate economic growth and which also provides a potential route to help address major public health issues. This success has been recognised by both the programme users and the funders and forms an integral part of the national economic development strategy.

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Our Partners

University of Aberdeen, Campden BRI, SAOS, Interface plus expertise from SRUC and the James Hutton Institute.

Find Out More

For more information please contact Dr Alan Rowe, details below.


Dr Alan Rowe


Food, health and wellbeing