Food for Today

Food Science Activities :

Feeding Your Genes

If you follow current events, you know that science is discovering ever closer ties between food and health. The latest research could take that relationship to another level—the cellular level. If scientists are right, the way you eat could help or hurt your body’s ability to use nutrients for a lifetime.

From the Laboratory . . .
This new view of nutrition draws equally from food science and from a branch of biotechnology called genomics (jih-NOH-miks). Genomics deals with genetic mapping, the writing of an organism’s genetic description, or “recipe.” When determined, this information would be organized into databases to reveal relationships between genetic makeup and health. The ultimate goal is to identify every gene and the physical trait it is responsible for, including unseen traits like the lack of a certain enzyme.

How does genomics apply to food? A growing amount of research is showing that nutrients can affect the body on a cellular level by interacting with the genes. This new field of study is known as nutritional genomics, or nutrigenomics.

In one test, for example, young mice were fed a high-sugar formula instead of their mother’s milk. Into adulthood, these mice had a greater tendency toward obesity and diabetes—two health risks of high-sugar diets—than mice that did not receive the formula. Scientists suggest that the mice’s dietary habits affected their genes “metabolic memory.” (Metabolism is the way cells use nutrients to provide energy.) The genes that influence their metabolism had been “trained” to store sugars. Like any genetic trait, it stayed with them the rest of their lives.

. . . To the Real World
Findings like these suggest that genes respond to the influence of nutrients, just as they respond to hazardous substances by causing cells to grow into cancers. This opens a floodgate of possibilities. It could help solve nutritional riddles, like why some people can eat high-cholesterol foods without raising their blood cholesterol or why certain illnesses “run” in some families. Scientists have identified a genetic link for some diseases. Perhaps good nutrition is a way to break that genetic chain.

Knowing how genes and nutrition impact one another could lead to more personalized nutritional counseling. Suppose, for example, that your genetic “map” suggests an inability to absorb iron, even before you feel the effects of an iron deficiency. You might be advised to eat more iron-rich foods. You might even be told what foods to eat to trigger the gene that makes an enzyme needed for iron metabolism.

Consider the impact on food marketing. Stores are already filled with products designed for different dietary needs. Now you can buy orange juice with added calcium. Imagine an orange juice that promises to improve your genetic ability to metabolize calcium. If a link between genes and calcium metabolism was well known and widespread, people who lack that gene could become a target for manufacturers and advertisers. Consumers would need to be even more informed and vigilant.

Nutrigenomics also raises some troubling questions involving privacy issues. For example, will certain people be discriminated against by insurance companies and employers because their genetic makeup shows they are prone to diet-related health conditions? On the other hand, will insurance rates drop for people who improve their genetic profile through a proper diet?

Given the rate of progress in nutrigenomics, society and individuals will have years to consider issues such as those. Scientists are only gradually discovering the role of single genes. Identifying each gene, its function, and its impact on other genes will be a lengthy process.

Perhaps what’s most important to remember is that so far, no findings have contradicted established nutritional advice. They have only pointed out exceptions or given a better understanding of nutritional relationships. Nutrigenomics might someday tell you that you need to eat more sweet potatoes than carrots. For now, be smart—eat them both.


With advances in ____, scientists better understand the genetic triggers of various physical traits.

Studies in nutrigenomics try to reveal relationships between ____.
A)genes and environment
B)genes and illness
C)genes and nutrition
D)food and health

Conditioning genes to respond to nutrients in a certain way affects ____.
A)metabolic memory
B)genetic mapping
C)nutritional standards
D)enzyme activity

Nutrigenomics could be a useful tool for ____.
B)food manufacturers
D)all of the above

Further studies in nutrigenomics are likely to ____ current nutritional advice.
A)have little effect on
B)make scientists question
C)confuse understanding of
D)refine and explain

Suppose someone who is trying to lose weight says, “If it’s true that food can change your metabolism, then maybe those diets that claim certain foods make you burn more calories really do work.” How do you respond?
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