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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Researchers have discovered women of African-American and Mexican heritage have markedly different folate metabolism making them more vulnerable to cancer risk and neural-tube defects in newborns. Green leafy vegetables and soy – rich sources of folates – are not that affordable, available or well-liked. So folate enrichment by cereal-based food companies (pasta, bread and breakfast cereals), the March of Dimes says, has made a tremendous difference in populations that otherwise might not get enough of the nutrient.

"Preliminary results involving soy and prostate cancer are promising," according to Raymond Rodriguez, a cellular and molecular biologist and director of the Center of Excellence for Nutritional Genomics at the University of California at Davis. African-American men are disproportionately susceptible to prostate cancer. Research by Alfred Galvez at UC-Berkeley revealed lunasin, a bioactive isoflavone in soy, suppressed tumor cells, including prostate cancer, and reduced heart disease. Kevin Dawson, senior informatics scientist at the Davis center, extended these cell culture findings with human studies at the Prostate Cancer Education Council in Colorado with encouraging results.

Diabetes, a metabolic disorder, manifests in high levels of blood glucose caused by abnormal erroneous insulin production or action. An increasing number of consumers are being diagnosed with diabetes and at a younger age.

The risk for diabetes can be inherited and may be attributed to a number of specific causative gene mutations yet to be identified. African American, Hispanic/Latino American, Native American and some Asian American people are at particularly high risk for diabetes. Diet already is a key solution to managing this disease; imagine its effectiveness with a better understanding of the specific interactions of diet and genetics.

"The interplay of human genetic variation and environmental factors will make identifying causative genes and nutrients a formidable, but not intractable, challenge," says Kaput. He stresses the need for newer and more comprehensive methodologies and analyses of nutrient-genotype interactions involving large and diverse populations.

Crafting diets for subpopulations of people seems important only to some extent at present. But in the future, creating products for people of given genetic predispositions and other personal and environmental factors will have great effects on quality-of-life indicators and life expectancies.

About the Author

Kantha Shelke is a principal at Corvus Blue LLC, a Chicago firm that specializes in competitive intelligence and expert witness services. Contact her at or 312-951-5810.


Nutrigenomics has definite marketing potential.

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation's 2005 survey to measure consumer attitude toward nutrigenomics and application to managing health reported most Americans (94 percent) believe they have some control over their own health. And 71 percent are favorable toward the idea of using genetic information to provide people with nutrition or diet-related recommendations.

A majority (69 percent) believe food and nutrition contribute to maintaining or improving overall health, but even more (90 percent) believe family health history governed health maintenance and improvement – leading IFIC to infer that consumers believe a mixture of genetics and diet are key to health.

Most consumers (88 percent) see health benefits beyond basic nutrition in certain foods as a key to reduce the risk of disease or other health concerns. Seventy percent of those surveyed say they are interested in learning more about how genetic information can help them improve the diets and, ultimately, their health.

But they overwhelmingly prefer the terms "personalized nutrition" (70 percent) and "individualized nutrition" (68 percent) over "nutrigenomics" (19 percent).

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