“One of the continuing challenges of nutrition research is to understand and deal with the variability in response to nutrients and other bioactive substances,” said Ahmed El-Sohemy, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Nutrigenomics at the University of Toronto and chief scientific officer of Nutrigenomix. He explained that the University of Toronto’s nutrigenomics research program has identified a number of genetic variations that help researchers better understand individuals’ nutritional needs.
Nutirgenomix, in turn, is helping to take these scientific discoveries “from the laboratory to the marketplace” by developing a genetic test kit that healthcare providers can use to gather DNA from patients’ saliva to identify and create personalized nutritional assessments for their patients, El-Sohemy said.
El-Sohemy, who will speak at the upcoming live Food Vision USA conference in Chicago Oct. 27-29, in a one-on-one interview with Nutraingredients-USA shared how nutrigenomics impacting consumers and creating marketing opportunities for supplement, food and beverage manufacturers. Here are excerpts from that interview:
NIU: Why is personalized nutrition important?
El-Sohemy: Consumers have long recognized that the one-size-fits-all model of dietary advice is based on an ‘average’ response of a population and might not be relevant to certain individuals. An example would be something like lactose intolerance. Most recommendations for healthy eating have always included a few servings of dairy, but a large segment of the population has a specific version of the lactase gene that prevents them from digesting the sugar lactose that is found in dairy products. … There are many other examples such as caffeine or salt sensitivity. Indeed, for virtually every essential nutrient that exists, we find some people respond differently from others and have unique nutritional needs.
To what extent are consumers embracing the idea of personalized nutrition, and how is it impacting their behavior?
We already see a strong demand for genetic testing for personalized nutrition through Nutrigenomix. This is different from disease-based genetic testing services. Consumers are more focused on wellness and recognize that healthy eating is a big part of that. The question is, ‘what is healthy for me?' … We have also shown that individuals respond much better to DNA-based dietary advice by finding the information more motivating to help them make changes to their diet. We published that study showing that DNA-based dietary advice was superior to the standard, population-based recommendations in the journal PLoS One.
What, in turn, does consumer response and interaction with nutrigenomics mean for supplement, food and beverage manufacturers?
We’ve seen the food industry respond to the needs of those with specific gene variants that result in lactose intolerance or celiac disease by developing products that are either lactose-free or gluten-free. It would benefit manufacturers to engage with some of the leading researcher groups in this field to understand what is on the horizon so that they can be prepared for the next major development. An exciting opportunity also exists for manufacturers to develop products containing different levels of nutrients or food bioactives for those with a particular genetic profile. But, those products must be based on robust scientific evidence.
Consumers currently can only access the Nutrigenomix test kit through a healthcare professional. Why is this important?
By making our test available only through a healthcare professional it ensures that the individual’s results are private and protected, just like any other health information. Importantly, it enables the healthcare practitioner to further customize the nutritional plan by taking into account any food preferences or aversions and can help the individual set realistic targets and goals, which could range from weight loss, lowered blood pressure or improved athletic performance.
What does the testing process involve and how long does it take?
The Nutrigenomix test requires only a small amount of saliva, which is used to obtain DNA. The test is available only through a qualified healthcare practitioner, some of whom are listed on our website (many are not listed because they prefer to offer the test only to their existing clients). The report is usually available in about 3-4 weeks, [after a CLIA-certified and CAP-accredited laboratory tests the DNA].
It seems like new information about nutrition comes out every day. To what extent can Nutrigenomix’s test evolve and adapt to scientific changes?
Our goal has always been to adapt to new scientific discoveries. We launched our original 7-gene test over 3 years ago and the science of nutrigenomics has grown considerably in that time, including discoveries made through our own research program at the University of Toronto as well as discoveries made by our colleagues around the world. Last year we added a new, comprehensive genetic test for gluten intolerance and we are now finalizing the development of an expanded panel of over 40 genetic markers, which includes discoveries made in recent months. Our goal is to be the provider of the most current scientific information.
What’s next for nutrigenomics?
There is growing interest in the athletics and performance community for tests that help athletes maximize their training and identify optimal diets to improve their performance. We are currently developing a sports & performance panel for athletes to help them tailor their nutritional and training regimen based on their genetic make-up.