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There is increasing scientific, political and public awareness of the health effects associated with overconsumption of the easily-digested carbohydrates (like sucrose and fructose), typically found in sugary foods and beverages.

Field of oats

A growing body of evidence shows that this is one of the major risk factors contributing to the increase in the prevalence of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Indeed, as consumers in newly-developed economies adopt Western-style diets, there is likely to be a huge global increase in the number of people suffering from chronic diseases. The management of these diseases will be a significant challenge for healthcare economists, policy makers and practitioners.

One way that the negative impact of simple carbohydrates on human health can be mitigated is reducing the rate (not total amount) at which blood glucose appears in the blood, following consumption and digestion of the food. This is known as the ‘glycaemic index’ (GI) of the food.

Two food components that may suppress excessive increases in blood glucose following consumption are beta-glucans and resistant starch (RS). Beta-glucans are complex carbohydrates found in a number of cereals, including oats and barley.

These carbohydrates can help slow sugar absorption after eating, which protects against excessive increases in blood glucose. However, why this happens is still unclear. Dr Peter Ellis and his team in the Diabetes and Nutritional Sciences Division at King’s College London are studying beta-glucans from oats and barley, and hope to identify how these food components protect against blood glucose increases.

Researchers led by Professor Gary Frost of the Division of Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism at Imperial College are exploiting the beneficial effects of RS using naturally-occurring varieties of pea which are rich in RS.

Using a flour made from the peas, Frost’s team are examining the beneficial effects of RS in the diet and seeking to identify a second route to protect against excessive increases in blood sugar after eating a meal. Together, these studies combine high-level research with practical applications. By improving the glycaemic profile of popular foods using beta-glucans and RS, it’s possible to have a significant effect on public health without requiring a change in consumer behaviour, and without the risk of undesirable side effects.

Emerging diet trends will see these demands increase, and we are seeing more supermarket aisles adopt sections for functional foods, as well as a rise in consumption of the humble native oat.

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