Nutrigenomics Looks at Connections Between Diet and Genetics

Nutrigenomics - the systematic study of the biology of nutrition - looks at the interactions among diet, health and genetics. This field is revolutionizing the study of nutrition and challenging "one-size-fits-all" approaches that attempt to improve health with simplistic low-calorie, low-fat or low-cholesterol diets for large populations.

By Kantha Shelke, Ingredients Editor

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In the case of Lunds/Byerly's, follow-up often includes a talk with the in-store dietitian, who can walk a customer through the store and recommend foods to help correct the health issues.

Kits are also being sold directly to consumers. Genova Diagnostic Laboratory, Asheville, N.C., offers some 125 kits, which claim to identify genetic predispositions for multiple disorders. Early in the game, Danish ingredient company Danisco invested in WellGen Inc., a New Brunswick, N.J., biotechnology company using nutrigenomics to develop proprietary wellness products.

"WellGen is doing exciting work on the obesity front with HMGene Inc.," says Julie Hirsch, WellGen's director of product development. HMGene, a spin-off company from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, is focused on the genetics of obesity and will screen WellGen's proprietary bioactive compounds to identify compounds that can be targeted to weight loss and the control of obesity.

Obesity and inflammation

Obesity by itself, scientists say, is not pathological unless accompanied by inflammation. Inflammation is a complex process that leads to a series of chain reactions that ultimately accelerate the development of certain chronic diseases.

Researchers have identified several genes that produce such compounds as COX-2, 5-lipoxygenase (LOX), inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS), interleukin-1 (IL-1), phospholipase A2 (PLA2), and tumor necrosis factor (TNF-alpha) among others that cause inflammation. Science has discovered that several naturally occurring nutraceuticals can effectively suppress inflammation. Potent bioactives include:alpha-tocopherol, ascorbic acid, curcumin (from turmeric – a common food-coloring spice from India), catechins and catechols (from green tea), curcumin, epigallocatechin gallate (from tea), genistein (from soy), lycopene (from tomato), omega-3 fatty acids, resveratrol (from grapes) and theaflavins (from black tea).

Inflammation results when the body breaks down omega-6 fatty acids into leukotrienes and prostaglandins. Omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA inhibit the enzymes catalyzing the production of these highly pro-inflammatory compounds and help prevent the onset of inflammation. Theaflavins, epigallocatechin gallate and curcumin prevent inflammation by down-regulating the expression of one of more of the genes responsible.

Naturally occurring antioxidants consumed as part of the diet offer preventative protection by delaying the onset of inflammation while effectively taking care of the symptoms of inflammation already in progress. The functional food sector stands to gain an edge over the pharmaceutical industry by using these ingredients to effectively target both metabolism and inflammation, so consumers can select foods and ingredients relevant to the root cause of their obesity and inflammation conditions.

Overconsumption is another contributing factor. To combat overeating, consumers can reach for foods and beverages made with P57 – the active ingredient in hoodia gordonii – to reduce hunger. Unilever, in collaboration with UK pharmaceutical firm Phytopharm Plc., is developing hoodia-based foods and beverages under the Slim-Fast label to manage the overconsumption aspect of obesity.

Nutrigenomics article: Dannon Activia yogurt
Danone (or Dannon in the U.S.) has introduced Activia, a yogurt with an exclusive probiotic culture that aids in digestive system functioning.

Similarly, specially formulated prescription foods with eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) can help alter the action of proteins and enzymes in the body that contribute to the degenerative condition of arthritis. Ocean Nutrition, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, is microencapsulating EPA to allow manufacturers of beverages, baked products and yogurts to incorporate its health benefits.

Danone is beginning to segment its consumer population by their health issues. A year ago, Danone introduced Activia, a yogurt with an exclusive probiotic culture that aids the functioning of the digestive system. Danone with help from Ocean Nutrition this year launched Cardivia, the first fat-free yogurt enriched with omega-3, an ingredient proven in numerous studies to promote heart health.

That National Starch Food Innovation (, Bridgewater, N.J., recognizes the importance of the genetic response to glycemic starches is evident from its sponsorship of clinical testing and genomic research studies. The colon is an important site for nutrient-gene interactions. Resistant starch is being investigated as a key macronutrient believed to reduce the risk of developing colon cancer.

As identification of genetic factors and physiological precursors (colonic polyps) help predict individuals at higher risk of developing colon cancer, dietary modifications for these individuals will become significantly more important. "Progressive food companies are already delivering foods with resistant starch to meet this need," says Rhonda Witwer, business development manager of National Starch's nutrition food products division.

The dispensation of targeted advice is the great promise of nutrigenomics. Because the biomarkers for heart disease, LDL and HDL cholesterol, are understood and measurable, the nutrigenomics of heart disease has progressed. Ingredient vendors such as DSM and Kerry Food Ingredients, Beloit, Wis., are making available several nutraceuticals such as omega-3 fats and dietary fiber to help food processors enhance their products to combat heart disease.

Cancer and diabetes

Despite significant scientific research and literature, cancer has been difficult for nutrigenomics. Markers vary for each kind of cancer, and environmental stimuli factor into the onset and progress of the disease.

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