Food Writer Reviews Nutritional Genomics

Senior editor at the Atlantic and food writer Corby Kummer has a wide-ranging review of the emerging science (and preliminary practice) of nutritional genomics in the recent MIT Tech Review.  He covers the definition of nutrional genomics; its promises and problems; the major movers of the field; preliminary gene-diet successes like the hepatic lipase gene variants and cholesterol ("one needle in a very high haystack"); and the shape of the marketplace for "genomic diets."

Corby Kummer. "Your Genomic Diet" MIT Tech Review. August 2005.

See also Corby Kummer, The Pleasures of Slow Food. Chronicle Books, 2002.

NutriGenomics at

UC Davis.

Davies Tries Cellf Eval Kit

Kevin Davies of Bio-IT world has a column on his trial of Sciona’s Cellf Evaluation Kit.  This is him describing his experience with the test:

my initial reaction was one of disappointment. The report soberly recommended that I should cut back on alcohol and caffeine, eat more cruciferous vegetables, and exercise more. “Brilliant,” I thought. “I’ve known that for years!” But the genetic analysis results were definitely intriguing. Sciona determined the genotypes of about 20 genes, looking specifically for DNA variations known to be associated with different enzyme activities and medical conditions…I would have no qualms about sharing those with Bio-IT World’s readers, but the health insurance company might be reading…in a few instances, specific genotype information did engender more personalized dietary advice. Just how useful is this personalized prescription? A few vitamin and antioxidant supplements probably won’t do anyone any harm, but will they actually do a body good?

Kevin Davies, Cellf Examination. Bio-IT World, May 16, 2005.

Genes and Nutrition

The Churchill Effect: "People’s natural inclination to believe that if Winston Churchill lived
to 90 on a diet of marrow bones, champagne and cigars, why not them?"  From a recent Newsweek article on nutrional genomics. 

If marrow bones don’t suit you, then I hear turnips are all the rage in Sweden [Editor: British readers please see the update below].  Or perhaps you’re tired of fads altogether.  Jose Ordovas is tired of diet fads too:

Ordovas, director of the Nutrition and Genomics Laboratory at Tufts
University, believes the era of sweeping dietary recommendations for
the whole population—also sometimes known as fads—may be coming to an
can’t create a diet that’s optimal for everyone, Ordovas says…Within a decade, though, doctors will be able to take genetic profiles
of their patients, identify specific diseases for which they are at
risk and create customized nutrition plans accordingly.

Read the article:

Anne Underwood and Jerry Adler. "Diet and Genes" Newsweek (International Edition) February 7, 2005.

UPDATE:A reader has informed me that the above post is likely to utterly confound British readers:

"Your turnip news is confusing for the British,
since what the English call turnip is a different veg from what the Scots call
turnip. The latter has a different name in England, namely
Swede. Ha!" 

So for the British readers the statement in question should read as follows:

"…If marrow bones don’t suit you, then I hear Swedes are all the rage in Sweden…"

(Thanks for the note Bill!)

Nutritional Genomics Reviewed

Jim Kaput and Raymond L. Rodriguez, Nutritional genomics: the next frontier in the postgenomic era, Physiol. Genomics 16: 166-177, 2004.  (only abstract available free) (UPDATE: now full-text available online for free here)

"The interface between the nutritional environment and cellular/genetic processes is being referred to as "nutrigenomics." Nutrigenomics seeks to provide a molecular genetic understanding for how common dietary chemicals (i.e., nutrition) affect health by altering the _expression and/or structure of an individual’s genetic makeup. The fundamental concepts of the field are that the progression from a healthy phenotype to a chronic disease phenotype must occur by changes in gene _expression or by differences in activities of proteins and enzymes and that dietary chemicals directly or indirectly regulate the _expression of genomic information. We present a conceptual basis and specific examples for this new branch of genomic research that focuses on the tenets of nutritional genomics: 1) common dietary chemicals act on the human genome, either directly or indirectly, to alter gene _expression or structure; 2) under certain circumstances and in some individuals, diet can be a serious risk factor for a number of diseases; 3) some diet-regulated genes (and their normal, common variants) are likely to play a role in the onset, incidence, progression, and/or severity of chronic diseases; 4) the degree to which diet influences the balance between healthy and disease states may depend on an individual’s genetic makeup; and 5) dietary intervention based on knowledge of nutritional requirement, nutritional status, and genotype (i.e., "individualized nutrition") can be used to prevent, mitigate, or cure chronic disease."

Patrick J. Stover, Nutritional genomics, Physiol. Genomics 16: 161-165, 2004. (only abstract available free)

"The integration of genomics into nutritional sciences has illuminated the complexity of genome responses to nutritional exposures while offering opportunities to increase the effectiveness of nutritional interventions, both clinical and population based. Nutrients elicit multiple physiological responses that affect genome stability, imprinting, expression, and viability. These effects confer both health benefits and risks, some of which may not become apparent until later in life. Nutritional genomics challenges us to understand the reciprocal and complex interactions among the human genome and dietary components in normal physiology and pathophysiology. Understanding these interactions will refine current definitions of benefit and risk and lead to the establishment of dietary recommendations that have a high predictive value, minimize the risk of unintended consequences, and account for the modifying effects of human genetic variation. Furthermore, nutritional genomics will enable the design of effective dietary regimens for the prevention and management of complex chronic disease. This review focuses on new perspectives that have been presented to the nutritional sciences by the advent of genomics, and new challenges that demand attention because of their potential impact on, and immediate translation into, current public health nutrition recommendations and interventions."


Attitudes of Consumers on Genetics

CogentResearch Press Release, Americans Ready to Use Genomics to Optimize Diet And Health.  November 17, 2003.

Three-fourths of Americans are interested in obtaining their personal genetic information to identify their risk of diseases such as cancer, osteoporosis, and heart disease, and nearly half of Americans are ready to use diet-related products tailored to their health needs based upon their genetic make-up, according to a recent research study presented at the Second Annual International Nutrigenomics Conference in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

"A survey of 1,000 Americans conducted by Cambridge-based Cogent Research, LLC, found that a majority of Americans are receptive to the idea of using genetic information to optimize health…’Americans are ready and willing to buy products based upon their genetic information, but the science is only in the early stages of being able to deliver,’ said Christy White, principal of Cogent Research. ‘The good news is consumers aren’t looking for complete diet regimens, but for individual products and basic recommendations’…

"The survey reveals that more than 90 percent of Americans are aware of the connection between diet and health, and 71 percent believe genetics play a crucial role in health throughout life. However, 73 percent are concerned about how personal genetic information would be stored and who would have access to that information. The findings are part of a broader, syndicated research study on genomics that explored solutions including pharmaceuticals, health and beauty products, and nutrition. It marks one of the largest efforts to understand consumers’ acceptance of using their DNA information to influence the balance between health and disease."

Nutrigenomics Special Issue

The journal Nutrition for January 2004 is a special issue on nutrigenomics.  Read the TOC here.

Of special interest are the following articles:

Foreword from the editors, Page 1
David B. Allison, Stephen Barnes and W. Timothy Garvey

"[There is] a long-held belief that there are individual differences in the response to ingested nutrients. These differences may have a basis in biological inheritance. If we can come to understand the origin of these differences, we may be able to not only better direct individuals to tailored nutrition recommendations but also enhance our understanding of the basic pathways through which particular nutrients achieve their effects."

~30 000 genes
~over 1.5 million SNPs
genes expressed as mRNA, variable in abundance
translated into proteins, variable in form
~225k plant species, ~80k edible, each w/ ~thousands of compounds

"This matrix of many thousands of foods and ingestible nutrients by many thousands of genes, genetic polymorphisms, and gene products is the playing field of nutrigenomics. As a field, we have just begun to explore this and must acknowledge that we have a combinatorial tiger by the tail."

Nutrigenomics:: exploiting systems biology in the nutrition and health arenas, Pages 4-8
Ben van Ommen

Genome scans for human nutritional traits:: what have we learned?, Pages 9-13
Tuomo Rankinen and Hemant Tiwari

Diet–disease gene interactions, Pages 26-31
Jim Kaput

Public Relations and Nutrigenomics: Lessons from Gerontology, Part I

The 2nd International Nutrigenomics Conference was held last week in Amsterdam.  Press coverage is scant.  There is one article in Nature on the conference, but it is available only to subscribers.

ERIKA CHECK, Consumers warned that time is not yet ripe for nutrition profiling. Nature 426(6963): 107.

Although promises exist for tailoring nutritional intake according to biological dispositions, as the title suggests this article emphasizes that nutrition profiling remains a concept under study and is not ready for mainstream consumption.

Given the constant struggle to legitimize much of scientific research, there is fear in the hearts of scientists, like restauranteurs, that a bad review tends to go farther faster than a good one, especially in an atmosphere where opportunities to reach the public are scarce.  In this case, it is not the field of nutritional genomics receiving a bad review, but individuals at the boundary of the field rushing to market products of dubious merit while claiming they are based on the most recent scientific evidence.  This article raises the question of whether nutritional genomics needs a strategy for separating itself from individuals or groups operating falsely under the same banner.

There are lessons to be learned from other frontiers in the health sciences.  This problem has been particularly salient in gerontology, where scientific progress is frequently co-opted by disingenuous companies who prey upon ill and uninformed consumers.  Last year a group of 51 scientists published a position statement as an attempt to separate legitimate aging research from the massive "anti-aging" industry peddling dubious and sometimes dangerous products.  This strategy, referred to as the "war on anti-aging medicine" sparked an internal debate among gerontologists about the challenges of maintaining disciplinary integrity.  These issues were recently debated by S. Jay Olshansky and Robert Binstock, both major contributors to gerontology.  (see the video or read the transcript here).

Pie-oneering Nutritional Genomics

There is nothing coincidental in that many prolific scholars position themselves between disciplinary boundaries.    Methods and principles taken from one knowledge domain and applied in another offers opportunities for insights that would be otherwise inaccessible.  The historical record is rich with examples.  The origin of molecular biology being one, when physicists jumped (over chemistry) into the biological sciences mid-twentieth century.  The humanities and social sciences are populated by inter-disciplinary vanguards as well, such as Richard Posner’s combination of economics and legal theory.  The time is ripe for pioneers of nutritional genomics. 

We are what we eat, The Economist, Sept. 4, 2003.

"…within five years or so, researchers should learn how to modify people’s diets to fit their genes and thereby prevent or delay the onset of a possible illness. At least, that is the goal of nutritional genomics—a new field that studies how genes and diet interact."

Evidence is accumulating that the application of advances in genomics to nutrition will enable individuals to tailor habits in the kitchen for improved well-being.  For example, Dr. Jose M. Ordovas and colleagues published evidence last October indicating that variation at one genetic site (a lipase gene) is related to differences in dietary fat response across a population.  In the future, evidence such as this may be used as a tool to help people at risk for illness, such as heart disease or diabetes, formulate a far more personalized diet than, say, the generic recommendations of the food pyramid.      

Two nutrigenomics research groups to watch:
NUGO: The European NutriGenomics Organization
Center for Excellence for Nutritional Genomics at UC Davis

For another perspective see recent paper:
"Nutrition and Genes: Science, Society and the Supermarket.  The opportunities and ethical challenges of the new science of nutritional genomics." (full paper or press release)