Nutrigenomics is still an emerging science, only named in 1999. But as knowledge in the field grows, it looks set to not only offer new insight into how genetics shape our nutritional needs but also significantly improve understanding of the molecular mechanisms of food components.
The leader of the EU-backed NUGO project, designed to set up a virtual network of organizations working in nutrigenomics, says the science could bring real advances for the functional foods industry within the next two to three years.
"Nutrition research typically either goes into very small details or creates a superficial overview of the whole thing," Dr Ben van Ommen, also scientific research fellow at TNO, told NutraIngredients.com.
"Now nutritional systems biology [the popular word for which is nutrigenomics, according to van Ommen] wants to merge these two fields to incorporate the whole detail."
In the near future, nutrigenomics will diverge into two streams, predicts Dr van Ommen - the real genetics part, and nutritional systems biology, which is not so much the differences between people but the search for a real description of the impact of certain components, he added.
"Food companies have been struggling with the concept of health claims," he added, "but we are developing a science that will help give them some of the mechanistic evidence to support claims. This could be useful within three years time."
He cited the example of probiotics, which are currently most often marketed with vague claims relating to wellbeing or gut health.
"The wide variety of reactions in the gut, at least five or six different ones, make it very complex to study and mean that it is necessary to deal with from a nutritional systems biology point of view."
The NUGO project is designed to tackle this complexity through bringing together companies and experts with a wide variety of backgrounds, including nutrition, genetics, information systems and technology.
The emerging science could also help with identification of healthy compounds for use in functional foods.
"For example, we have discovered that obesity by itself is not so bad but it is the inflammatory component that turns it into pathology. In the near future, food compounds will appear that target both the metabolism and inflammatory role," said van Ommen.
Only the biggest food ingredients companies are already supporting this kind of research but their involvement suggests the potential of nutrigenomics. Both of the major vitamin producers, DSM and BASF, have invested in US firm Sciona, which develops genetic tests that can help individuals make nutritional choices based on their genetic profiles.
NUGO will also launch an industry liaison platform this year to help companies get involved.
"We deliberately chose not to include food companies in our project but we are aware of our responsibility towards industry," said van Ommen.
"We don't want to see people selling hope, but selling science and we see it as our responsibility to safeguard scientific soundness."