Everyone knows that you are what you eat, and an apple a day keeps the doctor away. So we all know what we need to do to be healthy is to eat well, right?
Not quite, because people react in different ways to ingredients, even ones considered to be healthy. As Mike Elgan explains in his report two facts complicate the link between food and health. Firstly, he writes, ‘Diet affects the health of different individuals in different ways. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet. Our genetics and other factors such as age and gender determine whether specific foods are good or bad for us. For example, kale is supposed to be good for you. But if you’re genetically predisposed to forming kidney stones, kale is bad for you.’
Secondly, he continues: ‘A majority of the cells in our bodies are non-human microbes, most of which live in our digestive tract. These microbes affect our immune systems and overall health. The populations and functioning of this microbiota are determined in part by our lifestyles, including diet, pharmaceutical drugs, and other factors.’
This is where nutrigenomics, the matching of an individual’s DNA with specific foods, comes in. ‘With machine learning and detailed data,’ writes Elgan, ‘it should be possible to combine DNA testing and quantified self-tracking to understand dietary needs and apply this to the “Internet of Food” to satisfy those needs.’ He defines the Internet of Food as a large-scale effort to enable all known information about every food ingredient and product to be accessible by machines, consumers and companies.
What may sound like the stuff of fantasy is, in fact, already under way. In Silicon Valley, startups are combining advances in technology and DNA sequencing to give bespoke diet and lifestyle advice. One such startup is Habit, funded by the Campbell Soup Company. From the beginning of 2017, Habit plans to offer DNA- and blood-testing kits for personalised nutritional recommendations, based on an individual’s unique biology, metabolism and personal goals. Back in November 2016, we wrote about how Habit is developing meal kits to be delivered to your door from early 2017. Read more here.
Other companies look for nutritional deficiencies that may be corrected through personalised vitamin and mineral supplements, and some companies look not at your DNA but the DNA of your gut microbes and give advice based on these results.
Dr Ali Mostashari, co-founder of nutrigenomics startup LifeNome, says: ‘I believe within the next five years we will see this transition to become a mainstream aspect of nutrition and dieting.’ Within a decade he expects that ‘high-fidelity nutrition personalisation will be a norm…’
Fascinating stuff, and it could benefit not only the individual but society as a whole. As Elgan concludes: ‘With vastly better data generated by DNA and other testing and real-time quantified-self technology, as well as the Internet of Food and food-sensor devices, we should be able to individually tailor and optimise diet in a way that improves health without drugs or surgery for millions of people.’
Sarah Berry agrees that personalised nutrition is the future of food, could reduce the risk of chronic disease and may be closer than we think. In her feature in The Sydney Morning Herald, she discusses The Personalised Nutrition Project, by Professor Eran Segal and Dr Eran Elinav of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science. Here 1,000 volunteers had their blood sugars checked every five minutes for a week while they ate their usual diet, gave gut flora samples and answered questions about diet and exercise and medical history.
From the data they collected, Segal and Elinav saw how different foods affected each person’s body. ‘The first super surprise was how differently the response was to the same food,’ explains Elinav. ‘For example, you could easily find people who had a much higher glucose response to ice cream than rice. You could also find people who had the exact opposite response and who would spike from rice but not ice cream. In fact, about 70% of people didn’t spike on ice cream.’
Responses to other foods surprised them, too. One participant was pre-diabetic and had weight problems despite eating vegetables all day. ‘We discovered whenever she was exposed to tomatoes she would spike,’ says Elinav. ‘Many of the results were counter-intuitive.’
Counter-intuitive they may have been, but they were also so specific that the scientists could use a complex algorithm to calculate a personalised diet. To test these plans, a second study of 36 mostly pre-diabetic people was divided into two groups. One was given a ‘good’ personalised diet for a week and a ‘bad’ diet, according to the algorithm, for the second week. The other group was given personalised diets based on diet, blood sugar and microbiome data. ‘Our algorithm was even more effective in predicting a good or bad personalised diet than the experts,’ explains Elinav, who notes that most participants’ blood glucose dropped back to ‘almost normal’ following the ‘good’ week.
Elinav adds that this new approach to nutrition is even more sophisticated than DNA or genetic testing, adding: ‘I’m not aware of any science-based approach that comes close.’
All of which could has potentially huge benefits for health around the world, especially the Western world where around 40% of the adult population is overweight and 13% obese. As Elinav puts it: ‘We believe our approach could introduce a viable solution to contribute to the fight against the obesity epidemic’ and that for personalised diets around the world we can ‘assume months rather than years.’
Indeed, DNA testing has already been trialled at by the NHS in Essex, as Laura Donnelly reports in The Telegraph. Overweight NHS patients are being offered free tests and weight-loss diets tailored to their genetic profile.
It’s not just how much of what sort of foods we eat that should concern us, but the quality and provenance of the food itself. Once we know the foods we can and can’t (or shouldn’t) eat, how we can be sure what we are eating is as clean as possible? As Macala Wright reports the Internet of Food can help us to reconnect with what we eat. For example Clear Labs is a team of software engineers and genomic scientists who are indexing our food supply to create worldwide standards of food integrity. Its flagship product, Clear View, uses DNA sequencing for food brands to provide accurate information on what is in the products they produce.
We might soon be able to ‘improve’ our food for the good, too. As Nicole Kobie writes in The Guardian, ‘Agriculture has been quick to trial internet of things (IoT) technologies: already, sensor-controlled rooms are growing altered lettuce, cows are connected to improve milk, and the all-important bee is getting a boost from automated heaters.’
For instance, with the bees, Eltopia chief executive Will McHugh and his fellow researchers have developed a way to heat up specific spots in a hive to kill mites but not bees, thereby losing the need for pesticides. He explains: ‘There’s a real battle in agriculture – over organic v inorganic, pesticides v GMO etc. I would just say that we’re really focused on not giving into those arguments and coming up with a solution that’s sustainable.’ McHugh adds that he has nothing against pesticides but understands that some people don’t want chemicals on their food. ‘And it turns out we may not need them,’ he adds.
Which leads us back to basics and, while we wait for the not-too-distant future and personalised diets for all, it would be prudent to return to functional foods, those with known, evidence-based health and wellness benefits beyond basic nutrition, as we reported here.
Finally, and as we also reported perhaps the future may learn from the past in the form of Chinese medicine and ayurveda, where ingredients such as golden turmeric, ashwagandha, bee pollen, ho shou wu, cordyceps, maca and probiotics are now becoming increasingly popular. It seems ancient philosophies have much to offer and long-revered ingredients may even complement personalised DNA testing when it comes to ‘prescribing’ food for good health.