FAQ: Interaction Between Food and Genes

Food interacts with genes?
Indeed, research has shown that nutrients comprising foods affect gene expression, the process through which the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) comprising our genes is converted to RNA (ribonucleic acid) and proteins are produced.

The various proteins formed at discrete points in this process function as enzymes (essential compounds that aid biochemical reactions), hormones, and other substances on which life depends. Thus, this interaction can be of considerable significance.

The amount, form, and even the frequency of nutrients consumed can affect protein manufacture, resulting in less protein being produced, less than optimal functional forms of proteins, or no protein at all. Depending on individual genetic variations and age, these effects may result in varying individual responses to environmental factors, such as diet and drugs. The effects can be overt, such as the effects of vitamin deficiency diseases, or more subtle and complex, as in the manifestation of type 2 diabetes, predisposition to obesity, and other chronic diseases.

Discoveries in genetics and other new fields of study (e.g., genomics, nutrigenomics, proteomics, metabolomics, and bioinformatics) make it possible to understand the varying individualistic effects of dietary components in processes in our bodies at the molecular level. This insight creates opportunities to prevent disease and improve quality of life through functional foods and tailored diets.

What is genomics?
Genomics is the study of whole genomes (the complete DNA sequence or genetic material of an individual or organism) and the arrangement and function of genes.

What is nutrigenomics?
Nutrigenomics is the study of the interaction of dietary components with genes, describing how specific dietary components (such as vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, phytochemicals or food metabolites) affect the protein profile of an individual.

What is proteomics?
Proteomics is the study of the full set of proteins encoded and expressed by a genome. In this arena, the dietary alteration of protein profiles is described and the interaction of proteins and their biologic activities is studied.

What is metabolomics?
Metabolomics (or metabonomics) is metabolite profiling, which measures and describes at the cellular level the outcome of changes in protein profiles and biological systems described by genomics and proteomics. In this field, metabolic fluxes in individual cells and their biochemical regulation are investigated. Metabonomics enables rapid screening for toxicity of substances, disease state, drug efficiency, nutritional status, and gene function in the “whole” organism.

What is bioinformatics?
Bioinformatics is the field of science in which biology, computer science, and information technology merge to form a single discipline based on creating and mining extensive computerized databases of nucleic acid sequences, gene structures, proteins and their function, as well as environmental constituents that can modify gene expression. Bioinformatics tools can monitor sequential metabolic changes in response to functional food components and facilitate evaluation of the safety and efficacy of the components.

As research in genomics and related areas progresses, what’s in store for the future?
With increased understanding of exactly how diet affects gene expression at the molecular level enabled through genomics, nutrigenomics, bioinformatics and the like, many nutritional interventions through food composition and food selection become possible. Studies designed to identify specific effects of diet on biochemical components impacting health have resulted in tantalizing suggestions for dietary interventions designed to modify gene expression and prevent disease.

What are the stumbling blocks to advancement in nutrigenomics?
The challenges facing nutrigenomics are similar to those encountered in drug or pharmaceutical development. Many common diseases are not caused by a genetic variation within a single gene. Instead, such diseases are caused by complex interactions among multiple genes, in conjunction with environmental and lifestyle factors. Although both environmental and lifestyle factors contribute tremendously to disease risk, their relative contributions and effects are currently difficult to measure and evaluate.

Studies to date have largely evaluated one gene at a time. To truly understand the biology of processes directed by genes, researchers need to simultaneously study functional interactions, complex networks, and pathways.

Recognizing the tremendous health benefits offered by functional foods, the Institute of Food Technologists commissioned an expert panel to review the available scientific literature related to functional food development. The panel’s report is divided into nine sections: Definitions, Introduction, Food and Genes, Current Legal Standards, Scientific Standards, Policy Limitations, Bringing Functional Foods to Market, Role of Research, and Conclusions. Copies of the report are available at www.ift.org. Founded in 1939, the Institute of Food Technologists is an international not-for-profit scientific society for food science and technology.