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Unilever, Kraft aid center's search for keys to better nutrition

Can diet help keep us mentally sharp as we age? Why does weight get distributed in certain areas of the body and not others? Can nutrition play a role in preventing disease?

Researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) will get closer to finding answers to these and other questions, thanks to partnerships established recently with two international food product manufacturers: Unilever and Kraft. Agreements signed with both companies will foster innovative research at Tufts intended to bring about a better understanding of how nutrients affect the bodily functions—an understanding that will in turn lead to the development of healthier food products.

"We were delighted to learn that these companies were interested in looking at the basic mechanisms underlying nutrition science," notes Simin Nikbin Meydani, associate director of the HNRCA. "The partnerships are a wonderful opportunity for us to more fully comprehend the role nutrition plays in maintaining health throughout aging."

The research agreements with Unilever and Kraft are an outgrowth of a renewed university-wide effort to strengthen relationships with corporate partners. In the past three years alone, Tufts has signed more than 200 corporate contracts for research, involving dozens of different researchers and companies. Most often, agreements with corporate partners come about due to a personal connection between a Tufts faculty member and a company representative. In the case of Unilever, for example, several faculty, in particular, Professor Ernst Schaefer of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and HNRCA, had developed a relationship with Unilever scientists that led to a formal, four-year commitment to sponsoring research at Tufts.

Although the current agreements with Unilever and Kraft are focused on studies conducted at the HNRCA, Meydani and others who established the partnerships hope they will expand to additional areas. "These relationships will provide an opportunity to showcase other research expertise here," says Meydani. "We hope they will prove that there's much more at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, and at Tufts, that is of value to corporate partners."