Interview: a different perspective for flavoring with Dr. Sofie Tanghe
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Sofie Tanghe works as a swine researcher in the Royal Agrifirm Group R&D team. Her research focuses on functional feed ingredients for sows and piglets. She is mainly interested in piglet growth and development, and how functional feed ingredients in sow and piglet diets can help in the development of robust piglets. Sofie completed her Ph.D. at Ghent University in 2013 on ‘The effect of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet of gestating sows on piglet performance and health’. She then worked as a swine researcher at Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO). Since 2015, she has been working at Agrifirm as a Swine Product Developer.
Van Zele: Good day to all our listeners and thank you for joining us. Today, we are learning about how to apply the piglet’s senses to improve feed intake with my colleague Dr. Sofie Tanghe, Swine Product Developer with Royal Agrifirm Group. Sofie, welcome and thank you for joining us.
Tanghe: Thank you for having me.
Van Zele: So, first off, can you please share with us a little about yourself?
Tanghe: Sure, I'm a bioscience engineer. I graduated at Ghent University. There I also obtained my Ph.D. on omega-3 fatty acids in the sow diet. Since 2015, I'm working as a researcher for the Royal Agrifirm Group, where I mainly focus on the research and development of functional ingredients for sows and piglets. I am particularly interested in how these functional ingredients can help to improve piglet vitality and robustness. To give you an example, in one of my most recent projects, I looked at how functional ingredients can improve piglet feed intake.
Van Zele: Thank you for that introduction. You just mentioned one of your most recent projects is focusing on feed intake. Can you share with us how you came up with this idea and why it was necessary for the industry?
Tanghe: Yes, well, during the last years, the composition of our piglet diets has changed a lot. Just think, for example, about the ban on zinc oxide. This ban has made us reformulate our diets, changing not only nutrient levels but also using other raw materials and more feed additives. Furthermore, there has been a lot of new scientific insights and knowledge on piglet feed intake. We have learned a great deal about sensory receptors, for example, and feedback mechanisms to the brain.
So, we found it was time to reevaluate our current feed intake concept, but we really wanted to start here from a piglet's perspective and focus on what the piglet wants.
Van Zele: So, this concept is about thinking what the piglet wants. Can you explain a little bit more what you mean by this? How do piglets experience food differently than us? Is it that, or do you mean something else with it?
Tanghe: Well, when you think about food preference and food intake and why you prefer a certain food over another, then you immediately think about its taste. And it's true, taste is indeed a very important sense when it comes to food intake. But actually, when we eat, we use all our five senses, although not all of them are equally important.
And the order of importance also differs between species. We humans, for example, we really rely a lot on our sense of sight or vision. Let's say you want to eat an orange but, instead of the nice orange color, you see that the peel is white and green because it's covered with mold. In that case, your eyes will tell you that it's probably not the best idea to eat that orange and you do not need to taste it to know that.
For a pig this is different, a pig relies much less on its sense of sight. The main senses of a pig, when it comes to feed intake, are taste and smell. A pig has about three to four times more taste buds than humans. So, it’s sense of taste is really well developed.
But did you know that it’s sense of smell is really sophisticated? Just think about the fact that pigs are used to locate truffles which grow 20 centimeters underground. So, we can definitely say that the pig has a much more developed sense of taste and smell than we do.
Van Zele: Very interesting to hear there are differences in experiencing senses. So, I can imagine that you were discovering some new insights about piglet feed intake. Which factors were the most interesting for you as you and your team worked to create a new flavoring for Earlyfeed?
Tanghe: Well first of all, changing the flavor of your piglets diet is not something you do overnight, but we found it was time to look at it from a piglets perspective. With this new flavor, we really wanted to go back to nature to discover the innate preferences of the piglets, and for that we were inspired by newborn piglets. When you look to newborn piglets, they actually receive very little assistance from the sow after birth and they have to find the teat to suckle from on their own. They do that based on their senses. Also here, their sense of smell is the most important sense they use. We learned that there are specific odors secreted by the mammary gland that attracts the newborn piglet to the nipple.
And this is not only true for pigs, but actually for all mammals. Also, for us humans. Babies are actually guided to the nipple after birth by these specific maternal breast odors and they are very important to start up successful breastfeeding. Also, for myself personally, being a new mom, this was really a big eye opener.
So, in our new feed intake concept, called Piglet’s Flavorit, we now mimic these specific odors secreted by the mammary gland. In that way, we are able to attract the piglets to the feed. By triggering their innate reflex to search for their mother [we] create a feeling of familiarity and recognition.
Through this maternal recognition, it's much easier for the piglets to change from sow milk to solid feed. We also experienced that piglets can achieve much smoother feed transitions, resulting in an improved and continuous feed intake.
Van Zele: This is an interesting conversation, especially this maternal recognition angle. Thank you for sharing what you have learned about how piglets experience feed and how we can apply these lessons in practical feed solutions, like flavorings for improved intake. Do you have anything else you feel our audience would find interesting about piglet feed intake?
Tanghe: Well, next to the smell, we also renewed our taste concept. We learned that, besides sweet taste, piglet’s also have a big preference for umami taste. So, we also incorporated this knowledge in our new piglet feed intake concept Piglet’s Flavorit.
Van Zele: Well, Sofie, I have the feeling that it would be possible to talk for some more hours on this topic with you. For now, we will remember that smell and taste are very well developed senses by piglets and play a crucial role in feed intake. Furthermore, we also notice that the new concept, Piglet’s Flavorit, is putting the focus on what piglets want. I'm sure our listeners will be able to apply this information too. It was great to have you on today.
Tanghe: Thank you for having me.
Van Zele: Thank you, Sofie, and thank you to our listeners. We look forward to sharing more insights with you in the future.
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