Everyone has to eat. No other industry has the potential to so directly impact the well-being of the global population than the food industry. Innovative technologies are already affecting us all: from the rise of wearable fitness devices and DNA-based nutritional profiling, to nutraceuticals and the use of nanotechnology to increase nutrient concentrations in food. Good health is good for us as individuals, and our nutrition also affects business.
How does food affect our health? First of all, all over the globe, food is stigmatized as not being that good for us at all: obesity is a global epidemic. In 2008, more than 1.4 billion adults were overweight, and this situation is worsening. Currently, obesity is the fifth leading risk for global deaths: 44% of diabetes burden, 23% of the heart disease burden and 7% to 41% of certain cancer burdens are attributable to obesity. At the same time, we sense that food and nutrition have profound positive effects on our health: just think of the “promotion” of fresh vegetables by our parents at family meals; or special low-fat or low-carb foods available in any supermarket.
Obesity has a dramatic effect on healthcare costs (e.g. 200B$ per year in the USA), and governments are taking this issue very seriously. Individuals are following suit: people are taking charge of their health experience. They expect not only medical care, but any kind of health-related product to be tailored to their specific needs, so that they can live full and healthy lives.
Changing attitudes in nutrition
People are becoming more conscious of what they eat. The number of vegans in Britain rose by 360% in 10 years to half a million individuals – the perceived health benefits driving the trend. Tofu schnitzel, tofu bratwurst, tofu kebab: with 10% of its population going meatless, Germany has the highest rate of vegetarianism compared to its European neighbors. In addition, consumers are reaching out for biofoods, to ensure that fewer chemicals and pesticides land on their plates – and in their stomachs. The European organic market grew by 7.6% to more than 26 billion euros in 2014. U.S. organic sales reached $43.3 billion in 2015 – outstripping the overall food market’s growth rate of a miserly 3% – by growing a whopping 11%. Healthy food is no longer a fad, it is a business.
Far reaching effects
The effects of obesity have been investigated extensively, and the direct causal relationship to e.g. diabetes type II or the increased risk of stroke through heightened blood pressure are well described. However, in many other instances, the effects of food on health are enigmatic. The immune system may well be at the core, as this highly complex, yet very effective apparatus has the capability to protect our body from many attacks. The immune system can detect and destroy abnormal cells and thus prevent many cancers. There is also a direct link between neurological disease and the immune system. Overall, the immune system is influenced by many different nutrition factors – to name but a few: zinc, selenium, vitamins A, C, E and B6 and folic acid; and thus by our diet: e.g. processed food has been described as threatening to our immune system.
Most interestingly, the gut is the primary site of interaction between the immune system and microorganisms. Just imagine: humans carry ten-fold more bacterial cells than human ones. The microbes that live in our gut (tens of thousands of different species) can easily fill a half-gallon jug. Together they make up the human micobiome, with a tremendous potential to impact our physiology, in health and in disease. These microbes contribute to metabolic functions, protect us against pathogens, educate our immune system, and affect directly or indirectly most of our physiologic functions. The microbiome has therefore been implicated in diseases such as asthma, autism, multiple sclerosis, depression and anxiety, ulcers, and (suprise, surprise) obesity. Needless to say, the microbiome flourishes or suffers by our diet, and thus our food intake has, through the health of our microbiome, an additional effect on our health.
Nutrigenomics and more
What if we could improve our health by eating some foods and avoiding others, based on who we are as individuals, all the way down to our DNA? In comes genomics; or better: nutrigenomics. Adapting dietary advice for particular subsets of people is still very much a work in progress. Classic example: people with phenylketonuria lack an enzyme that breaks down phenylalanine. By limiting phenylalanine in the diet, those with the mutation can avoid intellectual disability and other problems. For that reason, phenylketonuria is screened for at birth. Lactose and gluten intolerance are also genetically hard-coded, although in the latter case the underlying mechanisms are harder to interpret. As the cost of sequencing a human genome continues to drop, it is highly likely that in the nearby future all of us will have our fully annotated genome sequence in the cloud, accessible through a smartphone app. Why not sequence our microbiome on a daily basis – as we flush the toilet? Combine the information from the two in that same app, and receive real-time notifications on what you should eat that day; always up-to-date with the latest insights?
How companies react
Crystal ball aside: many consumer goods companies are investing in the area of nutraceuticals, example focusing e.g. on Alzheimer’s. Again, and perhaps not surprisingly, gastrointestinal health is one of their focus areas too. Brewers are not only turning to genome sequencing to identify how to create certain flavors through knowledge of the yeast genome. A London brewery has launched a service to create a beer personalized to your DNA-based taste preferences. A range of new applications is envisioned in the area of nanoparticles in nutrition: e.g. to improve the bioavailability of bioactive food components. Taken together, as technological progress continues to take quantum leaps and as more scientific facts become available about the interplay between nutrition and health, consumer interest in food quality and beneficial foods will continue to increase.
The Fat Years Are Over – Time to Start Thinking About Healthy Nutrition?
(This article is adapted from the original blogpost on LinkedIn; the latter contains all the references).
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