Nestlé hopes to succeed where others have failed and identify “natural substances” that can stimulate an enzyme in our body / Getty Images

Swiss food corporation wants to find the “master switch” for regulating our bodies' metabolism

To the exercise-averse, it will sound like the Holy Grail.

In a lab near the shores of the Lake Geneva, a group of scientists are trying to discover the recipe to a drink that can mimic the fat-burning effects of physical activity. 

The project, announced this week by the Swiss food giant Nestlé, hopes to succeed where others have failed and identify “natural substances” that can stimulate an enzyme in our body, which researchers say is the “master switch” for regulating the body’s metabolism.

But the research has already raised concerns that any eventual fat-burning product could be taken up by the public as an “alternative” to exercise.

The enzyme, AMPK, is naturally activated by exercise, but in theory could also be influenced by an ingredient in something we eat or drink, according to research carried out by Nestlé’s scientists and published in the journal Chemistry & Biology earlier this year. 

Nestlé said that no product would simply replace exercise, and emphasise that an "exercise-emulating" drink would be useful for people who struggle with physical activity, such as the elderly and the disabled.

The project is being led by Nestlé’s Institute of Health Sciences in Lausanne, Switzerland, and falls under the company’s £1bn research budget, which rivals that of some major pharmaceutical companies.

 

Professor Kei Sakamoto, the institute’s head of diabetes and circadian rhythms, said that the goal was to “develop products that will help promote and augment the effects of exercise”.

“AMPK is a key protein in every single cell in your body and is naturally activated by exercise,” he said. “It monitors your energy status, like a fuel gauge in a car, and tells you to fill up when your energy is low.”

However, he said that exercise had so many positive effects that no single product would be able to reproduce them all.

Past attempts to develop foods or drinks that can assist metabolism and burn fat have so far been unsuccessful.

Professor David Haslam, chair of the UK’s National Obesity Forum, said that so far none of the projects had got to “the serious stage of development”. Nestlé’s own scientists are yet to discover the key ingredient and testing could still be several years off.

“With every hormone or molecule or compound there’s always going to be some artificial chemical that can react upon it,” Professor Haslam said. “The question is whether this is the right thing to do.”

Nestlé would have to take great care that any potential product was not marketed as an exercise alternative for the general population, he said.

“Introducing any such drink would have to be done in a very careful manner, with a very strong message that exercise is absolutely crucial to cancer prevention, reduction of diabetes and heart disease,” he said.

“You can’t replace exercise with a drink and if this product comes to launch, would they really only be targeting the disabled and exercised who can’t exercise, or would they target the general population? I would want to keep a very close eye on this and make sure they toe the line and that the messages are absolutely clear and correct.”

A Nestlé spokesperson said: “Any product that we would develop could never replace the broad range of benefits - including cognitive and physiological - that exercise offers. The goals we have for this research relate purely to helping those for whom exercise is a challenge due to chronic illness or disability.  We take this approach very seriously and any product of the future would have this positioning.”

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