Breakthrough technology

It's all about me! Nutrition gets personal

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Genetics Nutrition

Imagine if I could purchase a product that is exactly suited to
disease prevention for my own, individual genetic make-up. Sounds
like something from science fiction, but with the twin areas of
nutrigenomics and personalised nutrition developing apace, the mass
availability of tailored foods and supplements may not be too far
in the future.

Nutrigenomics is the science of how food and ingested nutrients affect genes - particularly those related to disease prevention. Granted, it's a science still very much in its infancy - the term nutrigenomics was only coined in 1999. The umbrella area of genomics is vastly complex, and the task of unravelling exactly which genes are responsible for exactly which events is no mean undertaking. But after long-haul R&D and repeated rounds of funding, the pioneers in isolating nutrients that have actions on human genes are communicating their progress - and are readying the fruits of their labours for market. For instance, after ten years of research and development, the first two ingredients developed by WellGen using nutrigenomics principles are approaching the end of its pipeline. Last autumn the US company said it was in the process of negotiating partnerships with food companies. Its black tea-derived ingredient was the subject of human trials into its role in turning off genes involves in inflammation; and the orange peel ingredient of non-human clinical trials on its potential to support weight control. In New Zealand, a collaborative project is also underway in New Zealand to examine the link between food and disease at a molecular genetic level; crown research organisation HortResearch has reported positive preliminary results on how apple extracts impact genes associated with Crohn's disease. For people with funding to dish, nutrigenomics is an area that they seem willing to hedge their bets. Last August the US Department of Agriculture earmarked $25m for a new $25m laboratory and office building in Davis, California briefed to fight obesity and chronic disease through nutrition research. Nutrigenomics is one of the core foci of the research team. Next month a major symposium on nutritional biotechnology will take place at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, to celebrate the development of the campus as a center for nutrition-related biotechnology research. But when it comes to actually applying nutrigenomics-based ingredients to real people with real, varied genetic make-ups - that's when the secondary area of new technology comes into play: personalised nutrition testing. Amongst the pack leaders are four US companies - Sciona, Genelex, Market America, and Suracell - which have each developed tests aimed at the consumer market. The idea of personalised nutrition testing is not without its controversy. A recent article in the magazine New Scientist​ argued that companies offering tests are piggy-backing on a science that is not well established enough to justify the hefty prices they charge. (Prices are said to range from $100 to $1000. Sciona's MyCellf programme, which analyses 19 genes that may play an important role in how a person's body manages bone health, heart health, antioxidant and detoxification function, insulin sensitivity and inflammation, sells online for $260.) "Discussing family history with a physician and taking a few blood tests [in order to]… give you a similar or more accurate snapshot of your current health,"​ wrote New Scientist​ author Bijal Trivedi. ​Trivedi's conclusions were fuelled in part by a report from the US Government Accountability Office, which said that some personalised nutrition companies "misled consumers by making predictions that are medically unproven and so ambiguous that they do not provide meaningful information." ​Not all of the testing companies have made the leap across the gulf that still exists between test results and selling products they say address the individual's needs. Suracell does offer "a personalised protocol of nutraceutical formulations"​ based on the results - as well as a daily core nutrition formula. ​Sciona, on the other hand (in which the venturing arm of Dutch chemicals group DSM is a mahor shareholder) argues that it does not diagnose or predict disease in its consumer reports. It simply says that, by understand the influence of genes on health, it can help consumers make health-promoting diet and lifestyle choices. The main proponents of personalised nutrition admit that nutrigenomics is a technology that still has far to go before it can have a major bearing on nutrition and the food industry at large. But roads into greater understanding are being made - and in terms of marketing, the path has already been somewhat prepared. In a sense, personalised nutrition is an extension of supplement marketers' strategy of growing their market by tailoring product design to the specific needs of a particular section of the population - pregnant women, sporty types, the over-50s, for instance. It has proved a successful model, as the marketers have managed to prod growth out of multivitamins which, as a one-size-fits-all category, was generally accepted to have reached maturity. The ability to tailor products to fit a consumer's needs even more snugly is the next logical step. How much more snug can it get than fitting one's own genes like a glove?

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