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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Diet, health and genetics. Once thought of as three distinct disciplines, diet and health have converged, with genetics often being the excuse why the first two didn't work.

Now all three are converging under the science of nutrigenomics. Being challenged are the "one-size-fits-all" (or at least many) approaches that attempt to improve health with simplistic low-calorie, low-fat or low-cholesterol diets for large populations.

Nutrigenomics – the systematic study of the biology of nutrition – explains response to food and food components in genomics, proteomics and metabolomics terms. (Genome refers to the complete genetic makeup of an organism; proteomics is the study of proteins encoded by genes; and metabolomics refers to the systematic study of the cellular outcomes – the metabolites.)

"The interplay of
human genetic variation
and environmental factors
will make identifying
causative genes and nutrients
a formidable, but
not intractable, challenge."

– Nutrigenomics researcher
Jim Kaput

The recognition that nutrients have the ability to interact and modulate molecular mechanisms underlying an individual's physiological functions is prompting a revolution in the field of nutrition.

Nutrients in foods alter gene expression; so different outcomes result according to the genetic makeup of people. Proponents argue that understanding these mechanisms can help consumers make up for inherited weaknesses or genetic flaws by eating differently and, when necessary, taking dietary supplements.

"The current food industry business model is simplistic," according to Jim Kaput, a nutrigenomics researcher at University of Illinois and University of California-Davis, who also founded Nutragenomics, a Chicago nutrigenomics research firm. The primary model is to create most foods for the most people, he says. But just as some food manufacturers find profit targeting segments, whether they are ethnic tastes or food intolerances, "then it follows that foods targeted to different genetic make-ups to optimize health can be equally, if not more, profitable," he says.

Kaput, however, cautions, "For manufacturers to produce effective personalized foods, research is required on two fronts. First, the different genetic makeup of the population needs to be analyzed in terms of the responses of the various metabolic groups to macronutrients (different types and amounts of protein, fat and carbohydrate) and micronutrients (types and doses of vitamins, minerals and supplements)." Then, he adds, "Food companies need to understand their consumers in terms of metabolic groups and play an important role in sponsoring and participating in the studies needed to link gene variants to food chemicals and components."

Some are. The commercial potential of nutrigenomics is heralded by the involvement of ingredient vendors DSM Nutritional Products, Parsippany, N.J., and BASF Corp., Florham Park, N.J., in Sciona, a Boulder, Colo., ( genetic mapping pioneer that provides personalized health and nutrition recommendations based on an individual's diet, lifestyle and unique genetic profile.

Groupe Danone's Daniel Carasso Center ( is working on probiotic products using the ERGO database (a comprehensive, analytical tool used to discover the interactions within a cell) from Integrated Genomics (, Chicago. Danone is analyzing genomic and microarray data from lactic acid bacteria.

At the base food production level, Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc. is applying whole genome association studies in cattle to hunt for genes that produce richly marbled beef.

Unilever USA, Hackensack, N.J., is investing in studies of human traits to help design new consumer products.

Nestle, on the other hand is exploring the world of metabolomics to personalize their products to consumers.

Tell your grocer your DNA

Meals tailored specifically for your DNA to ward off illnesses, cancers and even signs of aging may be years away, but consumers already are looking into genetic testing promising to help them chart a personal course toward better health.

Nutrigenomics article: Byerly's supermarket
Nutrigenomics article: Sciona Cellf testLunds/Byerly's grocery stores in the Minneapolis area (above) offer shoppers the use of Sciona's Cellf Assessment Kits (left), which utilize a DNA sample to help consumers connect several health issues with diet solutions.

Kits are already available (for $99) at supermarket pharmacies in stores such as Lunds/Byerly's in the Minneapolis area and Ukrop's Super Markets in central Virginia. Sciona's Cellf Assessment Kits, in use at both chains, assess consumers' bone health, heart health, antioxidant and detoxification, inflammation and insulin resistance.

In addition to DNA samples collected via mouth swabs, the kits include a questionnaire that also factors in family history and lifestyle. "Checking only those genes associated with key health areas that may be affected by nutrition and exercise, we identify genetic variations that may influence your ability to benefit from diet, supplements, and lifestyle," according to Sciona statements (for more information, go to

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