What one person eats for optimum health may differ from the next, and scientists are working out how our genetic makeup is responsible.
It could lead to a new era of personalised advice, tailoring our diet to the specific needs of our bodies.
For example, more than one in 10 people have a genetic variation that means they struggle to metabolise folate and are at increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and strokes. Because these people obtain less folate from food than those without the variation, they can benefit from eating more dark green leafy vegetables.
If you knew your enzyme for digesting folate was faulty, would you reach for the dark green leafy vegetables containing folate more often?
That’s the idea behind the EU-funded Food4Me project, which is testing whether differences in genes influence our response to food and affect our likelihood to develop dietary-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
‘The hope is that if nutritional advice is tailored to the individual it will be more meaningful and motivating for that person,’ said Dr Marianne Walsh from University College Dublin, Ireland, who manages the project.
Although the field of nutrigenomics – how our genes affect how we process food – is still in its early stages, the project has already shown some promising results.
So far, researchers have discovered five genes with variations that could impact how someone processes food. For example, people with a particular variation of the gene TCF7L2 are more likely to lose weight than others if they follow a low-fat diet. Another gene – ApoE-e4 – influences a person’s responsiveness to reducing their intake of saturated fat in order to improve their cholesterol levels.
‘Nutrigenomics is one of many tools that can help provide a better understanding of a health condition or an individual’s risk,’ said Dr Walsh. ‘In terms of personalised nutrition, this helps to determine which diet is best for a particular individual.’
If personalised nutrition proves to be more helpful to consumers than the general healthy-eating guidelines, it could potentially have huge implications for public health.
The four-year project is studying all aspects of personalised nutrition, from the science behind it to the business models that could deliver it. It is also exploring the ethical issues that genetic testing and commercial use of the data could raise.
‘It sets out to establish the state of the art in personalised nutrition,’ said Dr Walsh. ‘It’s the first project of its kind internationally.’
‘This whole idea that you can empower people to measure their biology is growing at an enormously fast rate.’
Professor Mike Gibney, University College Dublin, Ireland
Food4Me researchers ran a six-month proof-of-principle trial involving 1 200 volunteers in seven European countries. A quarter of the participants were given the standard ‘one-size-fits-all’ dietary advice via the internet, while the rest received one of three different levels of personalised advice about what types of foods they should eat more or less of, based on an analysis of their nutrient intake, bodily characteristics and function, and genetic makeup. The project’s outcomes will be presented at a conference in February 2015.
There are already companies offering personalised nutrition services, but the science of nutrigenomics still has some way to go before it can be commercialised, according to the Food4Me researchers. This is partly because of the difficulty in proving a genetic relationship between diet and health.
‘It’s too early to speculate on the economic impact (of nutrigenetic dietary advice) and we must do more research before we can consider making it mainstream in healthcare,’ said Dr Walsh.
Empowerment through gadgets
Professor Mike Gibney of University College Dublin, who is the project’s coordinator, said: ‘A very powerful message coming from Food4Me is that personalised nutrition isn’t just about genetics.' The science behind body characteristics and function – which determine phenotype – is much more advanced than nutrigenomics.
Phenotype markers include height, weight, waist measurement, and biomolecules present in the blood such as glucose and folate. There is an ever-widening array of bio-feedback gadgets, such as skin patches for measuring vitamin D levels, and wearable bio-sensing textiles to track heart and lung function. ‘This whole idea that you can empower people to measure their biology is growing at an enormously fast rate,’ said Prof. Gibney. ‘Bio-feedback gadgets are a huge industry.’
Devices for tracking the food that goes in and out of our kitchens could play a part in collecting data to feed into personalised nutrition programmes. ‘My vision of the future is that a person will go shopping, and their food choices in the shop will be connected to a device at home that keeps a record of everything they’ve eaten,’ said Prof. Gibney.
Food4Me is also investigating the effectiveness of differing levels of support and feedback – even down to providing menu ideas and recipes. ‘You can innovate on new products, but ultimately personalised nutrition is about giving people information – empowering consumers to make decisions based on a knowledge of their own bodies,’ he said.
A smartphone app that challenges children to engage in healthy behaviour, and genetic studies that investigate risk factors for obesity, are taking a nature and nurture approach to tackling one of the biggest epidemics of our time – childhood obesity.
Video games that are specifically designed to test and improve children’s social and emotional skills could enable parents and teachers to spot issues and help children improve their behaviour and performance at school as well as in later life.
A new type of use-by label for milk bottles that decomposes as the liquid inside goes sour could appear on UK supermarket shelves later this year. Labels such as these, capable of telling consumers exactly when fresh produce has gone bad, are being developed by scientists who want to stop food from being prematurely discarded. If successful, these indicators have the potential to reduce the millions of tonnes of valuable food thrown away each year.
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Deploying this technology rests on successfully making a business case to companies, says Kristin Jordal.