Speaking with NutraIngredients, Professor Michael Müller, scientific director of the Netherlands Nutrigenomics Centre at Wageningen University, and Dr Ben van Ommen, executive director of NuGO, said that whilst understanding how nutrition affects gene expression is important, it is only the beginning of creating a detailed map of how human health interacts with diet.
“There is enormous plasticity between our genes and our phenotype, on all levels,” said Prof Müller, explaining that although genes “are very important …it is also about looking at other things,” said Müller.
“From a given genome you can have so many different phenotypes. If people understand this, and how to modify this, we can perhaps begin to influence the expression of the phenotype throughout life,” he added.
Dr van Ommen told NutraIngredients that it was interesting to see how the field of nutrigenomics has evolved over the last decade.
“Ten years ago there were just a few passionate ‘hobbyists’ … this year the Christmas issue of Nature had eight special articles on nutrigenomics. We have switched from a minority to a feature topic in only a few years, and is something that now has a very solid position within nutrition research,” he said.
However, Prof. Müller added that although gathering data is becoming easier, there are still big challenges in how to analyze and interpret nutrigenomic data.
“Technological developments are happening so fast that we are now talking about looking at personal genomes … But we are still some distance away from understanding the impacts of this information,” he said.
“Nutrigenomics has given us the toolbox to understand more precisely how nutrition works,” said Müller.
“Ten years ago we knew quite a lot about the major biochemical pathways, but we now understand a lot more about differences between similar pathways in different organs,” he added.
Müller explained that such information was important to know, as it helps to explain the contribution of different organs and pathways to the overall health. He added that by working together, nutrition studies should begin to bring together different technologies to bring together a complete view of human health.
Building on differences
Dr van Ommen told NutraIngredients that the ability of nutrigenomic techniques to gather detailed information has opened up new possibilities in to exploit the subtle differences between people who at first may appear very similar.
"Sub-groups within a heterogeneous population may act differently from a single dietary intervention … so why not exploit this and say ok, if this works well for you but not for them, then you should take this product, but they should not," said van Ommen.
"This sort of use of the science is very possible," he added.
However, Prof. Müller said that he has a problem with the way many current nutritional studies are performed, because “although they are controlled, they do not differentiate between sub-groups.”
He added that this may be the reason that many nutritional studies only show small beneficial effects:
“The food industry has a place in personalized nutrition, but more at as a component of a healthy food pattern, or as a niche, with claims for highly specific supplement of food with reference to a particular population group,” added Müller.
Not just genetic
“A statistical genetic risk to a disease or condition does not mean that you will express the disease or condition …It is an important starting point, but then the freedom and responsibility is to choose your way; to choose the right diet and optimized lifestyle for your genetic pre-disposition,” explained Müller.
Müller added that this is because a number of other factors, including metabolism and the gut health, also play key roles in our overall health status.
Dr van Ommen added pointed to a wider phenotyping issue: “Genetics is only part of the issue, a driving factor,” he explained.
van Ommen also highlighted that that a personalized outlook to nutrition is not just about food:
“It is about the full service. Food together with testing, diagnosis and advice … the interactions between the initial test and the advised diets is the important thing,” he explained.
“The food industry has a place in personalized nutrition, but more at as a component of a healthy food pattern, or as a niche, with claims for highly specific supplements or foods with reference to a particular population group,” added Müller.
“The whole business model towards nutrition will change in this sense,” said van Ommen.