They are calling them the diseases of affluence but it hardly looks like even the deepest of recessions is going to cure us of them.

Cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung disease, diabetes and obesity are all linked, with alarming frequency, to the food and drink we consume.

Yet despite the mounting evidence of this connection between chronic disease and food, and the ongoing public obsession about what really constitutes a healthy diet, no dedicated food centre exists in the UK to scientifically assess the role of ingredients in health.

Well, at least not until now.

For three weeks ago, distinguished academics from Europe and the USA and representatives from global food companies attended the launch of the country’s first dedicated functional food centre, at Oxford Brookes University.

It will have the heavy task of providing evidence-based science about food and health to consumers, Government and the food industry.

One of its principal aims is to help companies develop new products with specific health benefits. And it will be seeking to identify food ingredients that may prevent disease, as well as conducting clinical trials.

It will also be running feasibility studies, while providing training and education for both health professionals and the public alike.

There is no doubting that the new food centre, based in Oxford Brookes University’s main Gipsy Lane campus, has its work cut out.

Its first director, Professor Jeya Henry, the long-serving head of food science and nutrition at Brookes, believes a major gap in food research is about to be filled.

“Food issues are of concern to everyone, but until now there have been limited centres in the UK for the provision of reliable and impartial food research.

“At a time of growing interest in food and nutrition there is a wave of misinformation and mistrust.

“Our primary goal is to improve the health and well being of people around the world,” said the food professor, a man who could never be accused of lacking self-confidence.

But then he has spent a quarter of a century researching aspects of nutrition as varied as obesity, energy metabolism and the use of traditional plant foods in nutrition.

A visiting professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, he is a former board member to the UK Food Standards Agency.

To many people he is best known for his collaboration with Oxfordshire’s most celebrated restaurateur, Raymond Blanc. His collaboration with the French ‘super chef’ began over 12 years ago when he was involved with M Blanc’s pioneering work on applying science to cooking, which culminated in a television programme and accompanying best-selling book Blanc Mange.

Yet he is also a consultant to the World Health Organisation, UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations on issues relating to nutrition assessment, food safety and nutrient requirements. And he played a key role in helping to develop a high-energy, ready-to-eat paste that may be used to effectively feed malnourished children.

He will certainly need to draw on all his experience to meet the high expectations that surround the centre.

In addition to testing ingredients and developing food products, it will be collecting data to support various health claims. The first three priority areas of research, however, will be diabetes, obesity and the impact of food on age-related problems and cognitive functions, covering concentration, memory and stress tolerance.

Brookes secured £300,000 in ‘corn money’ to set up the food centre from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Money accrued from commercial work for the food industry has also been invested in the project.

Brookes’s nutrition and food research group was already internationally recognised, offering research and consultancy services to the food industry, the United Nations and various Government agencies.

In recent years they have developed low GI (glycaemic index) bread, a salt substitute and a low-fat potato chip, with Brookes already the largest GI testing centre in Europe. The glycaemic index (GI) is a way of ranking individual foods according to the effect they have on blood-sugar levels — how quickly they are digested. Rapid rises and falls in blood sugar affect energy levels and can trigger over-eating.

Low GI foods, says Prof Henry, are the scientific paradigm of foods that our mothers and grandmothers knew intuitively as healthy — oats, barley, rye, dried fruits, lentils, fruit, vegetables and wholegrains. They help weight loss, too, because they are digested slowly and create fewer hunger pangs. They bring down cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of diabetes by keeping blood sugar levels under control.

But processing, refining and cooking food makes the carbohydrate more digestible, and also raises the GI ranking. One project he undertook for Tesco involved testing composite foods, such as shepherds pie and steak and kidney pie, for their GI rating.

Ready meals are not necessarily bad meals, he says, but the way foods interact with one another affects the index. In one recent interview he said: “Not all processed food is bad. The excitement is that it can be used to reduce the GI in foods.”

Antioxidants is another area that Prof Henry, his deputy Dr Helen Lightowler and the centre’s 12-strong team will be focusing on. Diets and creams claiming to have antioxidant properties capable of everything from reducing the risk of cancer to cheating ageing are common but may ultimately be worthless in many cases.

“We are now in a situation where the consumer still doesn’t have the information to make choices. The information is skewed and biased. For example people buy cranberry juice because it tells them it is an antioxidant food. But it doesn’t mean it is going to improve their health and whether the money would not have been better spent on fruit.”

The school will soon require a steady stream of volunteers to take part in experiments and randomised control trials running from one day to several weeks, while companies commissioning work from the food centre will be made aware of that the ownership of the data and results remains with Brookes.

“We make it clear that they are not able to influence the outcome of results in any way,” said Prof Henry. “ Our independence cannot be compromised in any way.”

And the food centre is hoping it will get to work with small local firms as well as major manufacturers. Any local sausage maker wishing to produce a new low-fat product would be as welcome as any supermarket chain, he says.

The centre will be supported by the Brookes Schools of Health, Social Care and Social Science and Law. For it seems that it will concentrate on the social aspects of food, as well as its scientific characteristics.

The link between poverty and poor diet, is simply too big an issue to ignore.

He gives the example of the difficulties a mother of five, living in a high-rise flat, faces in carrying the recommended amounts of fruit and vegetables home, even if she wanted to and could afford it.

He also shares his friend Raymond Blanc’s sense of shock about how rarely the modern British family actually sits down together for a meal. Food can alter your appetite, but so to does the way you eat it and the people you eat it with.

He immediately chuckles, as he recalled how difficult it is to be home in time to eat with his wife, who works as a school teacher.

For there is nothing of the zealot about Prof Henry, who certainly does not see himself as any kind of ‘food tsar’.

“We just want to be able to offer a service that looks at food from the farm to the fork,” he says.

That would seem to be more than enough for starters.