The complete mapping of the human genome sequence in 2000 introduced the possibility of individualised medicine, including personalised nutrition. During this time the field of “nutrigenomics” emerged, which examines the relationship between food and gene expression. Many were hopeful about the ability to plan diet recommendations based on an individual’s genetic profile.
However, the promise of personalised nutrition has failed to develop as a commercial service, and matching dietary advice to genetic profiles has proven difficult. Some companies offer genetic mapping and health reports, but these services are often based on inaccurate information.
There is a need to comprehensively analyse the opportunities and challenges in the field of personalised nutrition. In addition, the fundamental question remains, “how can we best use our current understanding of food, genes, and physical traits to design healthier diets tailored for each individual?”
To address these concerns, Food4Me has gathered an international group of experts to survey the current knowledge of personalised nutrition, and to explore the application of individualised nutrition advice. The Food4Me project will also investigate consumer attitudes and produce new scientific tools for implementation.
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The strategic aims of Food4Me are:
- To determine the application of personalised nutrition, through the development of suitable business models, research on technological advances, and validation of delivery methods for personalised nutrition advice.
- To compile current scientific knowledge and consumer understanding of personalised nutrition—including best practice communication strategies and ethical boundaries—to be shared with the EU institutions, the food industry, and other stakeholders.
The Food4Me consortium is a diverse team of experts in biological sciences, consumer studies, marketing, business development, IT and technology, ethical and legal industry, and communication. The Food4Me consortium is well qualified to assess and analyse the field of personalised nutrition. Among many research outcomes, the Food4Me project will achieve the following:
- Conduct a comprehensive assessment of the opportunities and challenges for personalised nutrition business models in the future.
- Develop new scientific tools that use dietary, genetic, and phenotypic data for personalised nutrition.
- Validate the impact of different levels of personalised nutrition advice (dietary vs. phenotypic vs. genetic) to consumers, using the results from a large study in 8 EU countries.
- Report on the attitudes and beliefs of European consumers to all aspects of personalised nutrition.
- Describe the ethical and legal dimensions of personalised nutrition.
- Produce best practice guidelines for communicating about personalised nutrition
What is nutrigenomics?
Nutrigenomics combines the study of nutrition and genetics to discover the different ways people respond to food based on their genetic make-up. While humans are very similar genetically, we all have slight differences in our genetic blueprints which set us apart from other people. These tiny variations determine both the effect nutrients have on our bodies and how we metabolise the food that we eat.
Personalised nutrition hinges on this two-way relationship between nutrients and genes. On the one hand, the nutrients we consume can affect the way our genes are expressed; on the other, our genes are able to influence how our bodies respond to these nutrients.
The goal for nutrigenomic scientists is to unravel this complex interaction so that tailored diets can be developed which complement a person’s unique genetic profile. Not only will this optimise the health of the individual, but it may also work on a larger scale to help prevent society-wide diseases such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and malnutrition.
Folate is a great example of how the food we eat can affect our genes. Folate is produced from folic acid – an essential form of vitamin B9 found in green vegetables such as broccoli and brussels sprouts. It is needed by the body to make DNA, and deficiency in this nutrient has been connected to a higher risk of developing cancer (low folate levels lead to changes in the DNA strands which make them more susceptible to breaking).
As folate is vital for DNA synthesis, it also plays an important role during fetal development when cell division and growth are at their peak. Specifically, folate ensures that the spinal cord of the baby develops properly. It is so crucial to this process that women are strongly advised to take folic acid supplements before and during pregnancy.
Nutrigenomics also shows us how our genes can determine our response to certain foods. A great example of this is lactose intolerance. People who are lactose intolerant are unable to digest the natural sugars present in milk and other fresh dairy products. This is because the gene responsible for making the necessary enzyme (lactase) is “switched off”, leaving their bodies unable to produce it. As a result, these people react badly to consuming dairy products, suffering from side-effects such as abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea and nausea.
Phenylketonuria, or PKU, is another well-known example of how our genes and diet interact. People with this genetic disorder do not produce the necessary enzyme for breaking down phenylalanine – an essential amino acid present in dairy products, meat, fish, nuts and pulses. Phenylalanine is usually converted into another amino acid, called tyrosine. However, in individuals who lack the enzyme, it is instead metabolised into phenylpyruvic acid. If too much of this acid builds up in the body it can lead to disordered brain development and, in severe cases, mental retardation and seizures. This means that people with PKU need to stick to a diet which avoids phenylalanine-rich foods.
Genetics is the study of genes – hereditary molecules that are passed from parents to offspring. Genes are responsible for making the proteins in our bodies and determine how similar or different we are to one another. This includes visible biological traits like eye colour and nose shape, as well as invisible traits like blood type and susceptibility to disease.
Humans carry between 20,000 and 25,000 genes. In 1990, scientists set out to identify and sequence these genes in what has famously become known as the Human Genome Project. Just ten years later, in 2000, they had sketched the first complete map of our genetic make-up.