30 March 2002
NUTRIGENOMICS OPINION ARTICLE
This article below I wrote as an opinion article. It was published in the (official) Statejournal.
By Wytze de Lange
End of last month the first international nutrigenomics conference took place in Noordwijk aan Zee (Netherlands), organised by science institute TNO in cooperation with companies like DuPont, Nestle and Unilever. Central issue of the conference was the question what genetics (genomics) can mean for the food industry and whether the industry could be convinced to invest in this field of research. The line of thinking with the organisers and named companies is more or less as follows: there is an increasing interest among consumers in the relationship between food and health; genomics is delivering a number of strong analytical techniques that can be used also in the food industry and can be of great value, at process as well as product level. We can now measure the effects of foods on genes, track down bioactive substances like anti-oxidants and use these in functional foods or, with the help of genetic engineering, in 'novel foods'. Resistance among consumers against genetic engineering of foods is big however, so that does not seem to be a wise choice. Also, the claimed benefits of functional foods still need to be shown and there are biochemists who argue that too many anti-oxidants, used out of their natural context, lead to damage. The interest in the relationship between food and health has certainly increased among consumers. Whether normal food companies want to invest large sums of money in nutrigenomics is the question. The techniques are very expensive and the interactions between genes and proteins is an extraordinary complex matter. Unilever is exploring the field but refuses to invest in technical equipment. Besides, it appeared, between the different research groups of the human genome, there is only agreement on 6000 of the estimated 30-40.000 human genes. It may take long before research leads to a product and food companies do not have that time; a new product has to be on the market within three or four years. Another nagging problem is the fact that such large amounts of data are being produced that nobody sees the forest through the trees anymore. Another big question is how useful it is to now first go screen welfare-diseases on the genetic level, whereas the causal role of diet in these diseases is well known for years by now. Diabetes type 2 is a good example. Studies in various countries have shown that diabetes type 2 is caused by overweight as a result of too fat and unhealthy food. It has also been shown that the disease can be prevented and even reversed by dietary changes and physical exercise.
Change of diet therefore can prevent lifelong medication. The same is true for heart- and blood vessel diseases and other welfare-diseases. To say that food can be used to reverse disease processes is in our pharmaceutically dominated society almost sacrilegious, but on the conference it was a real point of discussion. At the end of the day however, the food industry does not dare to make that step and the focus will only be on prevention. Selling food as medicine would lead to big conflicts with the pharmaceutical industry, it also would lead to problems with regulatory authorities. Yet food has been used as medicine since the beginning of mankind and in many non-western cultures it is still standing practice. Caused in part by the globalisation push of companies like DuPont and Nestle, these traditional foodcultures are being severely threatened. Until 10-20 years ago, diabetes type 2 hardly existed in Asia. The introduction of Western food on the Asian market has caused an explosion of diabetes.
For India an increase from 19 to 57 million diabetics is expected in the next 20 years. But at the time that the traditional foodcultures have been destroyed and the whole world also suffers from our welfare-diseases, possibly DuPont, Nestle and others will come with products with bio-active substances that prevent those diseases? Or worse, they have "improved" the products by genetic engineering by which the foods now even can have a healing effect? Is there anything useful to do with the analytical genomics techniques from a societal point of view? According to the researchers we can now measure the effect on the genes of any product. In principle that seems to open the possibility to get more clarity in a number of running debates on non-chemical healing treatments. Do these food schools work? And if yes, how and especially with whom and with whom not? Possibly even the working of homeopathy can be shown now? To get such research started however, a strong societal input in the direction of the mainly publicly financed research is absolutely required but such input is at this point completely absent. That may possibly be the biggest problem.
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