An Eye toward Personalized Nutrition and the Future of Food Fortification

This article is the third and final article in a series on food fortification. The first article, “Is Food Fortification Necessary? A Historical Perspective,” and the second article, “Food Fortification in Today’s World,” can be accessed on our Web site www.foodinsight.org.

What will food fortification look like in the future?  That answer may depend on who we are at our very core.   A major milestone toward better understanding “our core” was met in 2003, when the Human Genome Project, a joint effort by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health, completed its goal of sequencing the entire human genome.  This had led to a number of ‘omic (from the Greek suffix ‘ome, meaning “complete” or “all”) sciences that analyze genes (genomics), mRNA (transcriptomics), proteins (proteomics) and metabolites (metabolomics).  Now, with these latest findings, researchers are better able to understand the complex interactions among genes, nutrients, and the development of diet-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity.  This area of research is generating much interest among health professionals and consumers alike. 

Personally Yours
Nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics are two emerging fields that study the relationship between diet and genes.  Nutrigenomics studies the interactions between diet and the expression of specific genes that keep the body healthy (e.g., systemic inflammation, energy utilization, or insulin sensitivity).  A number of advanced genomic tools are used to study the body’s response to food and to determine whether dietary interventions can increase or decrease the risk of diet-related chronic diseases.  Disease risk is complicated by the fact that it is not just diet or heredity that plays a role but several environmental factors (e.g., physical activity, smoking) add to the complexity of disease development.  Also, nutrients don’t act in isolation but, more likely, a combination of nutrients in our foods is important to consider. 

A closely-related science, nutrigenetics, attempts to understand how a person’s genetic makeup determines his or her response to diet, such as how the body breaks down, uses, and stores nutrients.  A person with certain “susceptibility” genes may have a heightened sensitivity to nutrients and other food components.  For example, specific genes have been identified that affect the production of enzymes responsible for folate uptake and use in the body.  In terms of fortification, higher folate intakes may be necessary for individuals who have this gene, and including foods fortified with folic acid in their diet may be helpful. Research in this area may help to develop personalized diet-related recommendations considering an individual’s unique genetic information. 

Scientists may understand these concepts, but what is the level of understanding among consumers?  To find out, the International Food Information Council Foundation conducted consumer research on this topic in 2009.  According to the IFIC Foundation’s Functional Foods/Foods for Health Consumer Trending Survey, the majority of those surveyed were aware of personalized nutrition with 20 percent saying they know a “fair amount.”  Additionally, 32 percent of consumers were “very interested” and 47 percent were “somewhat interested” in learning more about personalized nutrition.  Compared to 2005 survey results, the percentage of consumers who are “somewhat favorable” towards the idea has significantly risen over the past four years.

The Future of Food Fortification Technology
Scientific advancements in nanotechnology also have led to novel delivery systems for nutrients.  Nanotechnology refers to the science of working with objects 1-100 nanometers (1 nm is equivalent to one-billionth of a meter or about one-millionth the size of a pinhead) in size to create new products and processes.  Currently, nanotechnology is more widely used in the medical, pharmaceutical, and cosmetics industries than in the food industry.  However, nanoscale ingredients and other emerging technologies are showing great promise in helping to develop new approaches for delivering health and nutrition to consumers.  The FDA and others are in the process of reviewing nanotechnology applications as they relate to food, including their safety and efficacy.  A great deal of scientific work still remains to be done and, moving forward, monitoring consumer acceptance will continue to be important.

In terms of fortification, a reduction in the size of nutrients may increase nutrient absorption.  Vitamins and other antioxidants that are often unstable in the presence of light, heat, metals or oxygen may be stabilized by encapsulation with nanoparticles, thus increasing their bioavailability.  Other potential food applications include nanocoatings to fortify foods with minimal changes to a food’s flavor, oral vitamin sprays, and controlled release of nutrients according to a person’s nutritional status.

Looking back in this three-part series, we started with a historical perspective of fortification and how it laid the groundwork for today’s fortified foods and beverages.  Now, when we envision the future of fortification, it is likely that advancements in genetics and technology will be employed to provide personalized approaches to optimize our health and wellness.  In the meantime, eating a balanced diet from a variety of food sources, including fortified foods, and engaging in physical activity and other healthful behaviors, will go a long way in helping people achieve optimal health.