Farmacy: how food is becoming the new designer drug

Farmacy: how food is becoming the new designer drug

 Cutting edge research by a group of New Zealanders is changing the way we think about diet and, more significantly, what the farmers of the future will be producing.

If you thought supermarket shopping today was going through a revolution, here is a snapshot of what may well be coming to an aisle near you.

Imagine at the start of the weekly shop you’re in touch with your ‘genetic counsellor’ who works closely with your GP and dietician to plan your shopping list relevant to your individual gene profile. Furthermore, imagine this information being further ‘tailored’ to provide the right list to improve your general health, or to include specific nutritional advice targeted to how you, as an individual, might respond to a food type that helps or hinders the prevention of, or, your management of, a particular disease.

Based on this information you would visit a targeted food aisle in the supermarket, where foods developed for specific sub-groups of the population would be available, including foods for specific health and well-being outcomes as well as performance. The right foods from this aisle can be selected for your specific genetic ‘blueprint’ and your particular supermarket ‘remembers’ your purchases for future buying or, based on research findings, can make recommendations on new menu options—just for you.

Far from being a ‘sci fi’ take on life in the distant future, this picture is taking shape now and one of the drivers of this ‘brave new world’ of food production is a group of New Zealanders. The work they’re doing could have giant implications on the ‘cash crops and cows’ of the future.

Anecdotally we know the effects one gets after eating some types of food and more precisely we understand the health and nutritional outcomes achieved by eating others. What hasn’t been so clear cut is an understanding of how to develop foods targeted to prevent and ameliorate diseases as well as enhance recognised inherent nutritional benefits.

Given the ‘health/wealth’ possibilities that might flow on from such findings, the New Zealand Government wanted to ensure this country had a stake in the game.

What one could almost call New Zealand Scientific Inc with an agribusiness ‘twist’, Nutrigenomics New Zealand is the first large multi-disciplinary team that has been established for the twin benefits of New Zealand health and wealth creation via our national food industry. The groups involved come from two Crown Research Institutes—AgResearch Limited and Plant & Food Research—and The University of Auckland. Along with the science is a business development committee, responsible for guiding the project to tangible commercial products and returns, plus protecting the intellectual property that will be harvested.

Leading the charge at AgResearch are Drs Nicole Roy and Matthew Barnett. As the research momentum gathers steam they say it’s becoming clear that the implications for New Zealand farming will be significant.

“There could be changes in nutritional regimes for particular breeds of farm animal to produce foods (e.g. meat or milk) with added-value based on the knowledge of human food-gene interactions, and also changes in processing to maximise particular key components of various foods,” says Dr Roy.

For a country reliant on the contribution of the agricultural sector for economic viability, the bottom line of all this is the development of completely new, added-value, export-focused, targeted foods that will deliver proven health outcomes to consumers, plus help in the prevention or alleviation of a variety of diseases.

Nutritional research has traditionally taken a ‘one size fits all’ approach—in other words what’s in a particular food is what you ‘get’ out of the transaction. More refinement led to the notion of a targeted diet that focussed how various foods interacted based on a person’s genetic makeup.

According to Dr Roy, the thinking now is focussed on personalised or targeted diet creation.

She explains: “The two key ideas behind this concept are that foods can have functions beyond just nutrition, and that individuals can respond differently to the same food based on their particular genetic makeup. One obvious example is caffeine and the way individuals react to this based the substance’s own metabolic pathway. Essentially this divides people into ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ metabolisers of caffeine. Fast metabolisers will break caffeine down quickly, and thus not have much of a ‘buzz’ from its consumption, whereas slow metabolisers will break it down slowly, allowing the caffeine to circulate for longer and thus give them more of that coffee buzz.”

Many foods contain such active compounds, she says, and understanding how these compounds work, and how they may behave differently in different people, is the basis of the idea of a targeted diet. From there, understanding a person’s genes or more commonly metabolic profile then enables the ‘personalisation’ or tailoring of nutrition for that individual.

Similarly, that provides the impetus for researchers and food manufacturers to develop novel foods containing different levels of key ingredients that would be of benefit for people with a particular gene profile.

An alternative approach might be to recommend different whole diet combinations.

The disease focus of the current research of Nutrigenomics New Zealand is the debilitating type of inflammatory bowel disease known as Crohn’s Disease.

“Crohn’s was selected for two main reasons. It was clear at the time we started there was a strong genetic contribution to the disease. In addition, it was known that different foods can either improve or worsen the symptoms for people who have Crohn’s. A possible explanation for this is that gene-diet interactions are important.”

Being an inflammatory disease means an increased likelihood that findings will lead to discoveries in other disease types such as psoriasis and asthma. Similarly inflammation is a risk factor for certain other chronic human conditions like obesity, diabetes and cancers. Further understanding of fundamental mechanisms involved in inflammation may contribute to research in this field which, again, will have implications for food and farming.

This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).