Food has a profound effect on our health. From the first milk we take, to the vast array of culinary creations that give us both pleasure and sustenance, our genes influence our diets — and vice versa. This complex interplay has shaped human evolution. Nutrigenomics will help us exploit this relationship, blurring the boundaries between food and medicine, and heralding an era of personalized nutrition. Nutrigenomics is the study of how different foods may interact with specific genes to increase the risk of common chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers. Nutrigenomics also seeks to provide a molecular understanding of how common chemicals in the diet affect health by altering the expression of genes and the structure of an individual’s genome. The premise underlying nutrigenomics is that the influence of diet on health depends on an individual’s genetic makeup.
As diet is the most prominent life-long environmental impact on human health and as, with prolonging lifespan and changing lifestyle in developed countries, chronic diseases become more prevalent, nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics are key scientific platforms to promote health and prevent disease through nutrition that better meets the requirements and constraints of consumer groups with specific health conditions, particular lifestyles and in certain stages of life. Eventually, the nutrigenomics-rooted concept of personalized nutrition may translate into the development of new food products that target, if not individuals, at least groups of people with similar metabolic phenotypes and genetic risks.
There are many examples of how individuals respond differently to diet. For example, vitamin and mineral needs vary between individuals and by age, condition, health, etc. The effects of consuming phytochemicals, such as isoflavones and other flavonoids, or even starch, differs from person to person. Sodium increases blood pressure in some people but not others and the ability of dietary fibre to reduce cholesterol is also subject to genetic influences.
Nutrition and health research and its implementation into food products will become increasingly personalized as the ability of scientific tools to distinguish important physiological differences merges with the industrial means to deliver individual solutions. This process is not a revolution of food, but rather reflects the continued diversification of foods that has been ongoing for centuries. Practical solutions for most consumers will benefit by focusing food personalization on validated nutritional solutions to established subsets of the population. Infants, pregnant and lactating women, active or sedentary adults, athletes, frail elderly and consumers who suffer from inherited or acquired diseases all represent large consumer groups with food requirements that both address their nutritional issues and ensure compliance by considering personal preferences in taste, texture and appearance. Developing nutritional foods to help diseased people recover should accompany the parallel approaches in personalized medicine.
The genomics sciences have delivered proof of the principle that humans are different with respect to optimal diets. As nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics build the scientific foundation for this, and as genotyping technologies become readily accessible, consumers may gain value through information on their personal genetic code. However, only those genetic variations should be assessed that can be adequately addressed by appropriate diets.