In 1953 Francis Crick and James Watson created a visual model of DNA: the double helix. Crick was one of my professors at Cambridge University, and I recall seeing a model of the DNA double helix in his office when he and I had tutorials. I’ve been fascinated with genomics ever since, and it is what led me to pursue a career in food science. When nutrigenomics emerged, I was excited about food science and technology expanding beyond processing, preservation, and food safety to have a significant role in genetics and human health. But the concept of using food science to influence the human genome is a goal that seems to be taking longer than expected to materialize.
Obviously, there is much more for scientists to learn about the expression, transcription, and coding of genes, especially with respect to health and disease. Nonetheless, in the past 10 to 15 years a lot of information has been revealed about which bioactive compounds in foods are beneficial to health. So what is the status of the role food science can play in the progression of nutrigenomics?
In 2003 Food Technology published the article “Nutrigenomics: An Emerging Scientific Discipline,” which defined nutrigenomics as the study of how natural compounds in foods can impact the expression of genetic information. The authors provided projections of how food science would be involved in using specially designed food products to prevent and manage diseases. The realization of these plans was contingent on consumers obtaining genetic tests to determine which dietary foods would benefit their genes the most. Personalized diets would be the future of nutrigenomics, ushering in an era of foods with specific functions and purposes. A 2005 article on nutrigenomics, “Beyond Nutrition: The Impact of Food on Genes,” expanded further on this theme, discussing how functional food products promised the potential of using foods to fight disease and promote health and wellness.
However, by 2007 the article “Moving Forward with Nutrigenomics” conceded that genetic testing of consumers to determine personalized dietary plans was not really the solution to chronic diseases as many had hoped. Genetic testing turned out to be pricey and cost-prohibitive for most consumers. The article also pointed out that the standard reductionist approach to research—that is, focusing on the benefits of one nutrient or compound—was somewhat counterproductive in understanding all the interactive components in a particular food. In fact, research studies now indicate that many health-engendering bioactive compounds such as antioxidants and phytochemicals are most effective as components of a synergistic system within the whole foods in which they naturally occur.
According to this month’s cover story, health-engendering foods possessing natural compounds that influence our genes already exist, and they’ve been around for centuries. The article presents the latest research at the intersection of food, nutrition, genes, and health, and it highlights a fact that most cientists know: Vegetables and fruits are miracle foods that can significantly impact health. Packed with nutrients, these superfoods can reverse the tide of chronic diseases that affect millions around the world.
The question is what do we do next? The answer may be that we have been looking in the wrong place. Nutrigenomics has logically focused on the 23,000 genes in the human genome. But we now know they are greatly outnumbered by the estimated 3 million bacterial genes in the microbiome, all of the microbes, their genetic elements, and environmental interactions in the human body.
We are learning more every day about the importance of the microbiome on nutrition and health. For instance, 10% to 15% of our energy is derived using enzymes expressed from the microbiome. A recent article in The Economist pointed out that many bugs are picked up directly from the mother at birth and others arrive shortly afterwards from the immediate environment. It is possible, therefore, that apparently genetic diseases whose causative genes cannot be located really are heritable, but that the genes, which cause them, are bacterial. This certainly complicates things, but it may be the tipping point for nutrigenomics, nutrition, and health. The double helix still excites me and fills me with hope for the future!
IFT President, 2012–2013