Will genes determine foods and flavours of the future?

Research into nutrigenomics—the interaction between genes and nutrition to determine health—suggests that the future of the food industry lies in developing products that can be customised to meet consumers? individual nutritional requirements, says Mike Croghan.

What will the food industry look like in 10 or 20 years? It will change, that is not in dispute, but how? The current driving forces of taste, convenience and health are set to continue. But developments in nutrigenomics present opportunities for a more dynamic era of healthy eating and will impact how food is grown, processed and consumed.

What is nutrigenomics?
In 2001, the human genome project mapped our genetic structure and highlighted the importance of genes in nutrition. Growing evidence suggests the effects of nutrition and health may vary depending on an individual?s unique genetic makeup and that this profile also determines an individual?s susceptibility to many diet-related diseases.

For example, it is estimated that 5 to 15 per cent of cases of colorectal cancer are due to genetic predisposition.1 With significant figures such as these, it is not surprising that research is now being dedicated to exploring this area.

Nutrigenomics is the study of how the nutrients in different foods can interact with particular genes. This area of nutritional science will help us understand how nutrients alter the expression of genes important in the initiation and development of chronic diseases.

You are what you eat
Discovering an individual?s personal genetic makeup and therefore his or her predisposition to disease may bring a new level of pro-activity in eating for health and disease prevention. In the future, consumers will be able to obtain a genetic profile to identify specific disease susceptibilities. From this, nutritionists and dieticians can recommend which ingredients and foods to eat and those to avoid in order to retard or prevent disease.

Consumers will, in turn, be able to adjust their diets and develop customised eating plans to precisely match their genetic makeup and thereby better manage their health. They will have the ability to choose the right balance of nutrients or foods to enable their bodies to function more effectively and potentially offset health risks.

The impact individual specification of foods or nutrients will have within the framework of the communal eating occasion is yet to be realised. Will the home cook of the future need to prepare separate meals with specific components for each family member? Diet control through nutrigenomics will require a level of commitment from the consumer and it remains to be seen if, in today?s time-poor society, consumers are willing and able to take on this responsibility.

Food manufacturers will have to change their methods too, from the traditional mass-market approach to mass customisation—a switch that will not be easy.

Commercial consequences
The knock-on effect of nutrigenomics on the food industry could be huge. It is likely to trigger demand for customised crops, fortified with particular nutrients, and bespoke functional food and beverage products tailored to an individual?s nutritional requirements. This will inevitably impact food manufacturers—new markets and new opportunities for market segmentation based on genomics will open.

The advent of nutrigenomics will also affect manufacturers on a process and product level. They will need to adapt production systems and supply chains in order to produce more options for component-based foods. It?s a strange parallel, but there are similarities with the various stages that the paint industry has been through. Paint was originally available in a limited range of standard colours. The product offering gradually evolved to a wider range of colours, then technical innovation led to a customised approach with manufacturers providing a white base paint plus in-store adjustable colour mixes. In this way, individuals can create exact colours to match their specific requirements.

Tailored food systems will change fundamentals, such as the role of innovation and brand development. Manufacturers will need to completely re-evaluate their strategies.
Tailored food systems will change fundamentals, such as the role of innovation and brand development. Manufacturers will need to completely re-evaluate their strategies. But at the same time, food manufacturers may benefit from improved margins as personalised nutrition offers an incredibly strong value proposition to consumers by providing foods to meet individual dietary needs. This clear point of distinction will warrant a price premium that consumers should be willing to accept.

Although this may all sound like a flight of fancy that belongs to the distant future, there are many studies currently evaluating the relationship between nutrition and genetics. The overall aim is to help prevent or delay disease conditions, such as Type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and some cancers, through the selection of foods containing beneficial nutrients.

Nutrition and genetics: bowel cancer
One such study is currently under way at the Human Nutrition Research Centre at the University of Newcastle, UK, where researchers are investigating whether nutrient-gene interactions can be studied in individuals with a pre-disposition for bowel cancer to discover differences in response to dietary patterns.

In the study, young people who inherited a damaged copy of a tumour suppresser gene—which determines those at a greatly increased risk of developing bowel cancer—were monitored. The test group was given aspirin and/or a high-amylase form of resistant starch for a minimum of one year to see if it was possible to prevent or retard the development of polyps (pre-malignant growths in the large bowel) some of which will eventually develop into cancers. The researchers are now carrying out further studies with similar agents in volunteers with lynch syndrome (or hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer).

According to Professor John Mathers at the University of Newcastle: ?The study has shown that it is possible to carry out intervention studies in those who are genetically predisposed to bowel cancer. We hope that these studies will help us to identify agents that will prevent or slow down the development of bowel cancer, not only in these special families but also the general population.?

The implications of this kind of targeted intervention study could define causal links between specific dietary nutrients and disease risk prevention, and will enable comprehensive and confident dietary advice.

Tackling diabetes
It is believed that some people are predisposed to non insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) and have higher risk for insulin resistance—the primary metabolic defect that precedes the onset of NIDDM. Research was conducted by the University of Sydney to determine whether amylopectin-induced insulin resistance could be prevented or reversed by high-amylase feeding.

In the first study2 insulin responses were found to be 50 per cent higher in rats on a 16-week high-amylopectin diet compared to rats fed a high-amylose diet, which produced no change in insulin sensitivity. A second study3 investigated the effect of long-term consumption (52 weeks) and found the insulin resistance of the amylopectin group increased progressively over time. Both studies suggest the presence of resistant starch in the high-amylase diet may augment insulin sensitivity.

If these findings can be extrapolated to humans, these studies have important implications for the prevention of NIDDM in humans. If people predisposed to NIDDM moderated the glycemic response (the rate at which carbohydrates are digested and absorbed into the bloodstream, which affects insulin sensitivity) of their food, they may be able to postpone development of the disease.

The research clearly illustrates the relevance and potential impact of nutrigenomics in changing the way in which consumers and therefore manufacturers view food consumption. It also highlights the increasing importance of manufacturers building strong relationships with academic institutions. As nutritional science moves further ahead, we may see the introduction of more cross-functional teams, including academics, nutritionists, ingredients suppliers and food manufacturers, driving dietary guidance, nutritional education and new product development.

New levels of understanding of gene-diet interaction for preventive health represent a vast opportunity for consumers and manufacturers alike. The advent of tailor-made nutritional approaches and ?smart? diets will have wide-reaching effects and may irrevocably change the food industry.

But, however far nutritional science moves ahead, it is vital that food manufacturers retain focus on the fact that food will still be eaten primarily for pleasure, convenience and taste, and success will come from the effective fusion of these factors with innovation—in this case, nutrigenomics.

Mike Croghan is global business director of nutrition at National Starch.
Email: [email protected] Emails will be forwarded to the author.

1. Potter, JD (1999) Colorectal cancer: molecules and populations. JNCI 91:916-932.
2. Russo, A et al., (2000) Hereditary common cancers: molecular and clinical genetics. Anticancer Research 20:4841-4851.
3. Wiseman et al (1996) Amylopectin starch induces nonreversible insulin resistance in rats. J. Nutr. 126: 410-415.
4. Higgins et al (1996) Development of insulin resistance in the rat is dependent on the rate of glucose absorption from the diet. J. Nutr. 126: 596-602.

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