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PRP (37-01-06) Nutrition in early years (years 1-5) Research Specification


Published: 19 September 2023

Version: 1.0 - September 2023

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Timetable and Budget

Deadline for Stage 1 Applications 24 October 2023, 1PM
Notification of outcome of Stage 1 Application 09 January 2024
Deadline for Stage 2 application 20 February 2024, 1PM
Notification of outcome of Stage 2 Application June-July 2024
Earliest Potential Project Start September 2024
Project Duration 30 – 36 Months
Budget £1 to £2.5million per project


The Department of Health and Social Care commissions research through the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR. The NIHR Policy Research Programme (PRP) invites applications for research projects on Nutrition in Early Years (years 1-5).

Background on Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN)

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) is a committee of the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID), which is part of the Department of Health and Social Care.

It provides independent scientific advice on, and risk assessment of, nutrition and related health issues. It advises the 4 UK governments and is supported by a scientific secretariat based at OHID.

SACN’s advice covers the scientific aspects of nutrition and health with specific reference to:

  • nutrient intakes and nutritional status of the population
  • nutrient content of individual foods and advice on individual nutrients and diet as a whole, including the definition of a balanced diet
  • monitoring and surveillance of the above aspects
  • nutritional issues which affect wider public health policy issues, including conditions where nutritional status is one of a number of risk factors (such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, oral health, osteoporosis and obesity)
  • research requirements for the above.

SACN’s remit is to:

  • assess the benefits and risks of nutrients, dietary patterns, food, or food components to health by evaluating scientific evidence
  • make dietary recommendations for the UK population (including vulnerable and/or diverse groups) based on its assessment.

Consideration of vulnerable groups (such as infants, adolescents and older adults), racially and ethnically diverse groups and health inequality underpins all SACN evidence evaluations. Where relevant, and when available evidence allows, SACN also considers beliefs and cultural influences.

Background on young child feeding recommendations in the UK

Between 1974 and 1994, the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy (COMA) published a series of reports on infant feeding practices in the UK and made recommendations for infant and young child feeding. The last of these reports, ‘Weaning and the weaning diet’, was published in 1994 and has been the basis for much of the advice on feeding young children in the UK (DH, 1994).

Subsequent recommendations made by SACN and by international expert committees have carried implications for current infant and young child feeding policy. These include the adoption of World Health Organization (WHO) Growth Standards (SACN/RCPCH, 2007; WHO MGRS, 2006a; WHO MGRS, 2006b) and revisions to energy requirements (FAO, 2004; SACN, 2011a).

Accordingly, SACN requested its Subgroup on Maternal and Child Nutrition (SMCN) to review recent developments in this area. To complement this work, the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT) was asked by the Department of Health and Social Care to conduct a review of the risks of toxicity from chemicals in the diets of infants and young children. COT was also asked to examine the evidence relating to the influence of the infant diet on development of allergic and autoimmune disease.

Following a comprehensive review of the scientific basis of current dietary recommendations for feeding young children, SACN published its report ‘Feeding young children aged 1 to 5 years’ on 4 July 2023. It forms part of a wider piece of work considering the scientific basis of current recommendations for feeding children up to 5 years of age, of which the first part, ‘Feeding in the first year of life’, was published in 2018 (SACN, 2018).

The ‘Feeding young children aged 1 to 5’ report considers:

  • national survey data on food and nutrient intakes and status, the prevalence of overweight and obesity, and dental caries
  • evidence from systematic reviews examining a number of dietary factors and child, adolescent and adult health outcomes, as well as evidence on factors that influence eating and feeding behaviour, and diversification of the diet in the early years

The report includes SACN’s recommendations to government and recommendations for future research based on gaps in the evidence base identified during the development of this report.

Research priorities

OHID have considered the research recommendations from SACN and have prioritised these in terms of relevance to policy and impact. These are set out below. Research proposals are therefore invited on these top research priorities from SACN’s ‘Feeding young children aged 1 to 5 years’ report as below:

  • Quantification of age-appropriate portion sizes for different foods and drinks, including for vegetables, fruit, fruit juice and milk, for children aged 1 to 5 years.
  • Consideration of the potential short- and long-term health effects in young children of consuming fruit juice (and smoothies) in relation to free sugars intakes (see Swan et al, 2018 for definition)
  • Consideration of the potential short- and long-term health effects (including on oral health where relevant) in young children of consuming:
    • formula milks marketed for children over the age of 1 year in relation to free sugars intakes
    • commercially manufactured foods and drinks specifically marketed for infants and young children
    • low or no calorie sweeteners
    • saturated fat, mono and polyunsaturated fats
    • dietary fibre
    • animal compared with vegetable protein
  • Consideration of the potential short- and long-term health effects of vegetarian and vegan diets, and plant-based foods, drinks and diets in young children.
  • Consideration of the impact of suboptimal micronutrient intakes and status (including iron, vitamin A and vitamin D) on growth, and developmental and health outcomes (including oral
  • health) of young children.

Please refer to the ‘Feeding young children aged 1 to 5 years’ report for more information regarding the gaps in the evidence identified by SACN and the areas recommended for future research.

Where appropriate, applicants are encouraged to use existing nationally representative datasets and UK population cohorts, and to carry out comparisons against existing UK government dietary recommendations.

Areas out of scope for this programme of work

The focus of this call is on nutrition and health outcomes, and not obesity and weight management.
Research outside of the specified age range of 1-5 years.
Research recommended by SACN in reports other than Feeding young children aged 1-5.


Eligibility for the NIHR PRP is laid out in our Standard Information for Applicants and applies to all calls unless otherwise stated in the individual research specification.

Technical requirements / Expertise required

  • Nutrition science (including macro/micronutrients; body composition and metabolism)
  • General paediatrics and child health
  • Auxology and endocrinology
  • Oral health
  • Developmental attainment
  • Psychology/behaviour/social sciences
  • Health disparities/inequalities
  • Paediatric epidemiology and statistics
  • Food science


Applicants are asked to consider the timing and nature of deliverables in their proposals. Policymakers will need research evidence to meet key policy decisions and timescales, so resource needs to be flexible to meet these needs. Researchers will be expected to work with relevant DHSC officials from the outset to ensure the research aligns with priorities and is focused on needs and impact. A meeting to discuss policy needs with DHSC officials will be convened as a matter of priority following contracting.

To ensure research remains impact focused, practical, translatable and solution driven, during the course of the research, researchers will be expected to engage in regular communications with officials from DHSC. In particular, this will include liaison officers and financial leads in the Science Research and Evidence (SRE) directorate and nutrition science and policy leads in the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID). Furthermore, researchers will be expected to work with DHSC officials to establish key milestones and agree outputs, such as internal documents/updates, draft publications, presentations of findings to DHSC and potentially other key stakeholders.

Budget and duration

Maximum budget will be £1 to £2.5 million depending on the proposal, expected outcomes, likely impact and fit with priorities. We anticipate commissioning a number of projects in different areas.

Expected to be carried out over 3 years.

Costings can include up to 100% full economic costing (FEC) but should exclude output VAT. Applicants are advised that value for money is one of the key criteria that peer reviewers and commissioning committee members will assess applications against.

Management arrangements

A research advisory group including, but not limited to, representatives of DHSC, other stakeholders and the successful applicants for the research should be established. The advisory group will provide guidance, meeting regularly over the lifetime of the research. The successful applicants should be prepared to review research objectives with the advisory group, and to share emerging findings on an ongoing basis. They will be expected to:

  • Provide regular feedback on progress
  • Produce timely reports to the advisory group
  • Produce a final report for sign off

Research contractors will be expected to work with nominated officials in DHSC, its partners and the NIHR. Key documents including, for example, research protocols, research instruments, reports and publications must be provided to DHSC in draft form allowing sufficient time for review.

Guidance on Health and Care Inequalities and associate data collection within NIHR PRP Research

Health and care Inequalities is a high priority area within the Department of Health and Social Care and the NIHR and is often present in a majority of funded projects.We are now assessing all NIHR research proposals in relation to health inequalities. We ask that you please clearly identify in the research plan section of the application whether your application has an inequalities component or theme as well as how this research hopes to impact inequalities or not. Please also detail the core set of inequality breakdown data that will be collected, if applicable. More information on this request can be found in the Standard information for applicants.

References and key documents