Govt funds research into rising health problem as part of $84m push to produce high-value foods for export.

They call it TOFI, and it's just become a big focus of an $84 million strategy to revolutionise nutritional research in New Zealand.

The term, standing for "thin outside fat inside", describes a hidden but growing obesity problem where large amounts of fat are stored within the abdomens of lean people.

It's become a huge problem in Asian countries particularly China where populations are susceptible to looking thin while storing fat around vital organs, boosting the risk of diseases such as diabetes.

Researchers suspect a shift to fatty western diets over the past two decades has been behind a huge surge in health problems in Asia.


Studies indicate China may be home to a fifth of the two billion people projected to be obese or overweight, while the number of people in Asia who suffer from diabetes is expected to grow to between 400 and 500 million over coming years.

"The numbers are enormous," said Professor Sally Poppitt, a leading nutritionist at Auckland University.

"Over the last 20 years, the statistics of obese people in China have been growing much quicker than in Europe and US diets and lifestyle appear to be changing, so people start gaining weight."

This made TOFI a much bigger problem, particularly as Chinese people were more likely to be leaner than Caucasian people and developed metabolic problems younger.

TOFI was still an emerging focus of nutritional research, with much about the phenomenon still poorly understood by scientists.

"It's about something that's called ectopic fat deposition -- instead of keeping your fat in what you might think of as your safe stores, it can potentially go into your organs," Professor Poppitt said.

"And the most important organs, from a health and diabetes perspective, are your pancreas and liver."

She and fellow researchers will try to better understand TOFI through a series of new clinical studies which will involve comparing the metabolic profiles of Asian and caucasian Kiwis and doing dietary interventions.

"We think there may be good markers in the blood of this TOFI profile and we may also be able to find some new ones," she said.

"We can then say, okay, which foods are we looking at for nutritional solutions to this problem?"

The research will form part of a larger, nationwide collaboration under the Government's newly launched National Science Challenge, which eyes high-value foods as a major source of future exports.

The $84 million effort, bringing together hundreds of researchers, has a specific focus on metabolic, gastrointestinal and immune health, and weaning foods for health.

Australian scientist Dr Stefan Hajkowicz, behind the book Global Megatrends, said New Zealand's goal to grow its annual exports by $1 billion over the next decade could be helped by the creation of wealth in Asia and the digital revolution.

"The income growth in Asia is related to diet diversification and choosier customers they want to know where their food comes from, is it safe, what are its health benefits?" said Dr Hajkowicz, who is speaking at a symposium organised for the project's launch.

Disease surge

• Up to 500 million people in Asia may soon suffer from diabetes, in a surge researchers are blaming on changes in lifestyle and diet.

• China is expected to contribute a fifth of the two billion people globally projected to be obese or overweight.

• The new National Science Challenge is aimed at developing effective and lucrative new high-value foods, with the Government ear-marking $84 million for the effort.

• The foods have the potential to boost New Zealand's exports, which the Government wants to grow by $1 billion per annum over coming years.