‘You are what you eat’, the maxim made memorable thanks to Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1826, is as important now as it was then. The vital role #diet plays in #health has been widely documented, but our understanding widely rests on the 150 #nutritional components tracked by national databases which only represent a small section of the 26,000 definable biochemicals in the food supply. This wide range of chemical diversity remains largely invisible both to us and to epidemiological studies, yet the number is only expected to rise as detection techniques improve, leading to a far greater understanding of the links between our diet and health.
With plants unable to out-run any predators their defence is predominantly chemical, shown through smell, taste and appearance and is the reason behind their rich chemical composition. These chemical defence mechanisms require an extensive secondary metabolism. These metabolites are estimated to exceed 49,000 compounds. Environmental factors such as light, soil moisture, fertility and salinity can all influence the #biosynthesis and accumulation of these secondary metabolites. This is something humans and other animals, able to hunt for food do not have the ability to do, necessitating a source for these essential nutrients. Whilst the heavy focus on salt, sugar, protein and fat is important due to the key role they play in health and disease, there are many documented health effects linked to untracked chemicals.
It is important to remember that as recently as the 1980s 98.6% of #DNA was labelled as ‘junk’, with only 1.4% of all base pairs worthy of decoding. We can now estimate that 66% of disease-carrying variants are in these non-coding regions. With only 0.5% of the 26,625 chemical compounds documented in foods, currently being tracked in food composition tables, this offers us a remarkable parallel. 99% of biochemicals found in food are untracked by national databases, with their health implications largely unknown. Many food molecules feed the microbiome in our gut, which then metabolises these compounds into other species that can be further transformed by mammalian metabolism. Unveiling this nutritional dark matter will help us to better understand ways in which we can use food as therapy.
We understand how cooking and food processing alter the chemical composition of food, with some of these changes having well documented health implications, the presence of the carcinogenic compound acrylamide, in fried and baked goods for example. However, very little is known about the impact of processing on the thousands of chemicals found in nutritional dark matter, or the numerous toxins added to food during cooking, preservation and packaging and their effect on our health. If we can track the nutritional-chemical barcode of each individual and match it with individual genetic variations and health history, we should be able to merge nutrition with a precise digital and statistical platform. To better understand nutritional dark matter could conceivably lead us to modify our genetic predispositions to specific phenotypes and patho-phenotypes. Nutritional understanding enables us to modulate the activity of our subcellular networks through the foods we eat, lessening the impact of some mutations of disease. Accurate mapping of our full chemical exposure through our diet could lead to actionable information to improve our health.