Nestlé is to launch its largest ever research partnership, as the world’s biggest food company attempts to improve the scientific basis behind its products.

The Swiss group’s collaboration with the EpiGen, a consortium of researchers based at institutions in the UK, New Zealand and Singapore, will run for six years. Nestlé and EpiGen will each contribute half of the SFr44m needed to fund it.

The research partnership will look at the role played by the food eaten by pregnant women on the metabolism of their babies, both in the short and the long term, according to Stefan Catsicas, Nestlé’s chief technology officer.

“The evidence suggests that specific diets may have an impact two, five, maybe 10 years later, including — although the evidence is not yet as convincing — on the probability to develop metabolic disorders, such as morbid obesity,” he says.

Obesity is one of the world’s most pressing health problems, and in recent years, the food industry has come under increasing pressure to reduce the amount of salt, sugar and harmful fats in its products.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation halved its recommended daily allowance of sugar, and governments around the world are considering plans ranging from sugar taxes to clearer food labelling in an attempt to encourage people to eat more healthily.

Nestlé hopes that the research project will help its scientists to understand and combat some of the risk factors behind pregnancy-related conditions, such as gestational diabetes, which is a growing problem in parts of the world such as southeast Asia.

If the trial data are interesting, Nestlé would consider extending it for a longer period.

Nestlé already has numerous partnerships with other organisations, but this type of collaborative research will become increasingly important for the group as it seeks to bulk up its scientific capabilities, Mr Catsicas says.

“We will move into an open innovation type of strategy. We want to have the best possible science inside so that we can recognise who is better than us out there. Nestlé is big, but in relation to the world we are very, very small.”

In order to help it achieve this, the company is considering setting up a number of “innovation hubs” around the world in order to help it keep abreast of scientific developments.

Nestlé already has one hub in Singapore, and is planning a further two in the US, and one in Europe. “We will use those to scout what is happening out there, and license it in, establish collaborations,” Mr Catsicas says.

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