Kathleen P. Mullinix

From your morning coffee to the glass of wine you might have with dinner, it is true that the food you consume does impact the functioning of your genes. While it is widely accepted that genes influence whether we have blue eyes or brown hair, there is now a growing understanding that genes are responsible for our health, and that DNA plays a dynamic role in our daily lives.

Through the use of powerful nutrigenomics technologies that discover how genes which govern specific health states are affected by diet, a growing body of knowledge is being amassed. By determining how bioactive food components work, and the cause-and-effect relationship between food and health, nutri-genomics can identify innovative nutritional products that provide a variety of health benefits.

Developed over several years, nutrigenomics is now validated as a technology that can elucidate how dietary ingredients influence gene expression and metabolism, and it is the source of a growing array of potential products that confer health benefits.

In contrast, nutrigenetics—a field of inquiry that asks how variations in genes among individuals affect the reactions of an individual to specific dietary ingredients—is still in its infancy in 2007. Across most fields of biological inquiry today, scientists—using powerful databases that identify variations among genes of individuals—are working to establish correlations between genetic variations and susceptibility to certain health states, both good and bad. However, making such correlations is a daunting task because most conditions that are of interest are governed by not one, but many genes, and in order to develop meaningful causal relationships, very large populations must be studied. To date, appropriate studies have not been done on large populations.

Unfortunately, over the recent past, various groups have launched nutrigenetic testing kit products that purport to inform consumers about the relationship between their individual genes and their nutritional status. Appropriately, several regulatory agencies have become involved in attempting to set standards for establishing the validity of these tests that are being marketed to consumers.

The Government Accounting Office (GAO), following its 10-month investigation of direct-to-consumer nutrigenetic test kits, determined that these kits "mislead consumers by making predictions that are medically unproven and so ambiguous that they do not provide meaningful information to consumers." The GAO report stated that such tests are on the rise: one company estimated that it has sold over 35,000 nutrigenetic tests to consumers since it began marketing tests in the United States in 2003.

The majority of genetic tests on the market are known as "home brews," and are marketed as medical services, "direct-to-consumer." These tests are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and are not subject to any review to assess their validity. Significantly, there are no standards to assess the reliability of these tests. The Federal Trade Commission and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that buyers should be "wary" and "skeptical" of claims made by testing products since no valid scientific studies exist that show that genetic tests can be used safely or effectively with "customized" dietary recommendations that are being made by some genetic testing companies.

At WellGen, we use technology to discover ingredients that influence the expression of genes that are known to influence various health states across the human population. Examples of applications of the technology include our work to identify ingredients that influence genes responsible for inflammation and fat metabolism. We view nutrigenetics and the validated markers and tests that will result from the successes of nutrigenetic technologies as the long-term deliverable of extensive nutrigenomics research. The long-term goals of personalized nutrition are realistic, and they will be attained in the future as a result of the science that is being conducted today.

The power of nutrigenomics technologies is enormous and can be utilized today to predictably identify new ingredients with health benefits that can be proven and quantified. Over the next 5–10 years, science will progress, the marketplace will grow increasingly receptive to the idea of personalized nutrition, and savvy food companies and retailers will reap the benefits. Concurrent with the scientific breakthroughs relating to the human genome, marketplace demands have put nutrigenomics discoveries in a favorable position as a key source of innovation for the food industry. Trends toward food customization and individualized food preferences will open new opportunities for nutrigenomics and its use in the future of personalized nutrition.

by Kathleen P. Mullinix, Ph.D., is President and CEO, WellGen, Inc., 63 Dudley Rd., New Brunswick, NJ 08901 ([email protected]).