Can Scientists Tailor a Diet Just for You? The Promise of Nutritional Genomics

April 15, 2014 by  
Filed under Biotechnology, Dietary Patterns

Nutritional science professionals make population-wide recommendations on nutrient intake. These are designed so that > 90% of individuals would meet dietary requirements if the guidelines were followed. However, this also means that some folks are consuming levels well above their individual requirements. Is this a bad thing? How would we know? What if scientists could determine the sequence your entire genome (DNA) and make specific, individualized nutrient intake recommendations based upon your genetic makeup? Sounds exciting, or even scary, doesn’t it? This seemingly futuristic possibility is closer that you might think.

The human genome, representing the full complement DNA found within the nucleus of every cell in the body, was sequenced in its entirety and the results reported in April 2003 (Nat’l Human Genome Res. Institute). This was the result of a massive, many-years-long effort that cost upwards of $2 billion. Having the complete sequence of the human genome is analogous to having the manual to a complicated piece of machinery or the blueprints of a building. The challenge though is to understand how to decipher the manual and how the various pieces and parts work together to coordinate human development, and relate to health and disease. The information from the Human Genome Project was made freely available on the internet and has since resulted in the discovery of >1800 disease genes, 2000 genetic tests for human conditions and 350 biotechnology-based products.

Scientists now envision being able to sequence an individual’s genome for ≤$1000 in the foreseeable future. While this presents enormous opportunities for disease prevention and management, it also presents a number of challenges and pertinent questions. How could your specific DNA sequence be used to your advantage? Could this information make you healthier or increase your lifespan? Moreover, how could this information be misused if it fell into the wrong hands. Who would have access, either legally or illegally?  How would your genomic information be protected? These are all relevant questions and concerns

Your DNA sequence could reveal your relative risk for developing certain diseases including heart disease, diabetes or cancer. It might also be used to provide you with personalized nutritional recommendations. For example, if you had genetic variations associated with heart disease, low intake of saturated fat and cholesterol would be recommended. Or, if your genetic blueprint suggested a risk for diabetes, a certain dietary pattern would be recommended along with an exercise plan to maintain a healthy body weight. You can imagine how others might also like access to these data. How about health or life insurance companies? Don’t you think they would like to know your propensity for developing certain diseases? What about prospective employers or colleges and Universities? Would your consent be required for your genome information to be released to these entities?

So, what do you think? When your doctor offers you the chance to have your genome sequenced, will you agree? Or, are you concerned about how this information could be misused against you? Having this information might allow you to reduce disease risk, or it could reveal a genetic defect that could not be fixed by diet or exercise. What then? The choice may be yours soon enough…to sequence or not to sequence (?), that is the question.

(written with the creative assistance of Marlene Navarro and Cynthia Sagayaraj, both University of Florida undergraduate students)

Have you hugged your farmer today?

April 5, 2014 by  
Filed under Uncategorized

After a long, cold winter, spring has finally sprung in this neck of the woods. The sun is shining, the snow is melting, and tiny green leaves are beginning to poke through the brown earth. It’s a seasonal cycle that birds, bees, and bunnies look forward to every year, as do the 1% of folks who grow food for the remaining 99% of us. That’s right, I’m talking about farmers.

The industrial U.S. food system is a thing of absolute wonder. It’s a complex network of machines, synthetic chemicals, and economies of scale that produces a staggering amount of food – enough to provide each American with 3,800 kilocalories every day (U.S. Department of Agriculture), plus countless more that are fed to livestock and/or exported to exotic places across the globe.

And yet less than 1% (!) of Americans identify themselves as farmers. And of those who do, only 45% claim farming as their full-time occupation, meaning that the majority of farmer income is actually earned off-farm. In addition, the average age of U.S. farmers is approaching sixty years old. To put this matter into a historical context, at one point in the early 1900s the vast majority of Americans farmed. But the number of U.S. farms peaked at 6.8 million in 1937, then declined to the current two million. Keep in mind that there are more than 300 million citizens in the United States. (All data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).

My point of this blog post is threefold: First, most of us are not actively involved in food production. Second, most of us don’t know a spade from a harrow (meaning that we haven’t got a clue about the time, effort, and energy required to produce food). Third, most of us keep clamoring for cheaper and cheaper food (from farmers who already struggle to make a living working multiple jobs), even as we eat more and more of it.

Food for thought

Please consider the plight of U.S. farmers. Not only for their health, but for your health as well. There is certainly nothing wrong with choosing career paths outside of farming (we need mechanics, doctors, teachers, and plumbers, too), but let’s not forget about the people that literally put food on our table. If you haven’t yet, I strongly suggest volunteering for a day (or more!) at a local farm or community garden. Get to know the people and places that produce your food. The rewards will extend far beyond your belly.

Can Humans Survive on Food Made in a Beaker?

For most of us, food represents not only a necessity but one of life’s simple pleasures. It provides us with energy and the essential nutrients we need to maintain health and fight disease. But what if you could make food in beaker from the basic chemicals that sustain life and never have to worry again about how to obtain and prepare food on a daily basis? For some busy folks, or for those who don’t like to cook, this probably sounds appealing. If you did this though, how would you ensure that all the necessary ingredients were included? This would surely not be possible unless one had extensive knowledge in human nutrition, right?

Not so fast. This is exactly what has done by entrepreneur, Rob Rinehart, developer of a food substitute called Soylent (Soylent Web Site). But amazingly, Mr. Rinehart has a background in electrical engineering and computer science. How, you might ask, could someone with this background make such a product that would actually sustain human health? That’s an excellent question. So, let’s explore this product and consider its’ possible benefits and drawbacks.

Mr. Rinehart developed Soylent with venture capital investment he raised and tested the product himself and on a select group of others. He learned about human nutrition by reading various sources and came up with a list of all chemical ingredients contained in foods that sustain life. He then ordered these chemicals from various suppliers, mixed them together in his kitchen and started consuming the product 3 times daily. Through trial and error, he apparently modified the product to supposedly contain all the necessary ingredients to support human life and health.

When one reviews the Soylent ingredient list, it seems that most, if not all, essential nutrients are present. If one, however, has knowledge of the discovery of the essential nutrients for humans, there is cause for concern. 75 years ago, the list of essential dietary nutrients for humans looked substantially different from today. What will it look like in the future? No one knows at this point, but amongst nutrition scientists there is constant chatter about other potential essential nutrients. It’s conceivable that long term consumption of a product like Soylent will ultimately lead us to discover additional essential nutrients for humans. After all, many essential nutrients were discovered unintentionally, for example, when individuals were given total parenteral nutrition (intravenous nutrition) formulas that lacked certain critical dietary components.

For many of us, giving up the delicious and nutritious foods that we enjoy cooking and eating every day is not an attractive thought. Meal time for many families is a time to relax, and get caught up on everyone’s busy lives. If you just had to slug down a glass of tan-colored goop, this would all be lost. For others however, these are probably not important considerations. If that’s you, are you willing to be a human guinea pig and have 3 squares of Soylent a day? How long might you be willing to go? Adverse effects could take months or years to develop and could be irreversible. Those with in-depth knowledge of human nutrition would advise caution, and recommend that you stay “on foods”.

(Written with the creative assistance of Brittany Evans, a University of Florida undergraduate student)