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Nutrigenomics Looks at Connections Between Diet and Genetics

May 30, 2006
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.

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., (www.sciona.com) 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 (www.danone.com) is working on probiotic products using the ERGO database (a comprehensive, analytical tool used to discover the interactions within a cell) from Integrated Genomics (www.integratedgenomics.com), 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.

Lunds/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 www.sciona.com).

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.

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 (www.foodinnovation.com), 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.

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 [email protected] 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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