Take 10 with... Amber Milan

Dr Amber Milan explains her research into the way our bodies use and react to food, and why there is so much we still don't know about nutrition.

Dr Amber Milan, Liggins Institute

1.  Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

What happens when we eat food.

2.  Now describe it in everyday terms!

We can change lots of things about the structure of food, for example by cooking it or processing it, which changes the way that we digest the food. I am interested in how changes to foods can impact our health, and how different people digest food in different ways. For example, if you are getting a little older or if you have an intolerance - how does this impact the way you use food and how does the food affect you specifically?    

3.  What are some of the day-to-day research activities you carry out?

Much of the research we carry out isn’t that different to what you’d do at home if you’re testing whether your body reacts better to regular milk than lactose-free milk, for example. We carry out clinical trials which also involve feeding people different foods and seeing what it does to their body. The scientific part of it is using laboratory methods to understand how our metabolism or microbiome responds to those foods. In the end it is still ‘what do you put in, what does it do and how does it come out’ though.

4.  What do you enjoy most about your research?

I love how applicable my research is. Everybody has to eat food and everybody’s got an opinion about what foods do to them, or what is healthy. I think the surprising thing is that scientists and health professionals don’t actually have very good answers! I’ve discovered that the more you learn about nutritional research the more you realise we don’t know that much. I like asking questions and trying to find some of the answers.

5.  Tell us something that has surprised or amused you in the course of your research.

When I was doing my PhD I learnt that much of the nutritional information on food packaging still comes from a really old method called a bomb calorimeter – basically incinerating the food to determine how much energy is in it! However it’s the structure of the food – in particular the cellular structure of plants – that really affects how we digest it.  The vitamin A in carrots is actually trapped in their cells, so whether you mash your carrots or not changes the amount of vitamin A you get. Chickpeas are another example - mashing them or eating them whole changes the amount of carbohydrate and fat you absorb, so the nutritional information on the packet isn’t necessarily how your body uses it.

There are more advanced techniques now of course, but trying to determine how much energy you get out of a chickpea based on the amount of carbohydrate in it still isn’t going to tell you how your body actually digests it, how much of it isn’t absorbed, and how much of it is instead being used by your gut microbiome.  

6.  How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

One of my recent projects looked at dairy intolerance that might not be caused by lactose intolerance and how we could define that. It was an interesting challenge to pick apart because it was trying to address something that we didn’t have scientific knowledge about or evidence for, but something that anecdotally people report all the time.  It’s a challenge I frequently come up against in food research: how to match up the scientific knowledge we have (or don’t have) with the questions that people want answered.

7.  What questions have emerged as a result?

We thought there might be a biochemical trigger for dairy intolerance, but as we developed the project we realised it was more multifaceted. Rather than a portion of milk causing dairy intolerance it could be the way that it is digested or the way a person’s stomach or gastrointestinal tract responds to it. There are always new questions at the end of a research project and it is about making sure you haven’t narrowed down your thinking too much and you’re open to new ideas about where to go from here.  

8.  What impact is your research having or what impact do you hope it will have?

I really like my research area because it is applicable to people in their everyday lives – for example incorporating kiwifruit in your diet to see if it helps with regularity. I find it really rewarding that there is an impact that people can take away, even if it is just dispelling myths about food. A lot of our research participants are curious about whether one option or the other is going to benefit them more, and my research hopefully provides answers that they can apply to their diet.  

9.  If you collaborate across the University, or outside the University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

I’m lucky to be based at the Liggins Institute because I have the opportunity to work with researchers who aren’t only focused on nutrition. This allows me to think about research questions from different perspectives, for example early life, or maybe investigate biochemical methods that I wouldn’t have a lot of experience with like the microbiome or genomic structures. I also work across the University with people in the Discipline of Nutrition and Dietetics and the School of Biological Sciences, externally with AgReseach (which gives me the opportunity to link in with food and beverage industries), and with other universities that have a nutrition focus like Massey and Otago. It’s a huge benefit having access to people who have experience across different industries and different research methods who can give you ideas about how to shape your research and capabilities that you don’t have in a smaller department.

10.  What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

Research is hard and uncertain so you have to be prepared for that, but it is also very rewarding. I think if you are prepared for that then it is a good option, but if you’re not sure then it’s important to think about what you will find rewarding and what will fit with your lifestyle.  Research has been a great option for me because I like to continue learning and I am okay with a little bit of failure, even if it takes a while to learn how to accept!