In mid-February 2015, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released its 571-page report detailing what Americans should be eating to stay healthy. Much of the advice likely sounded familiar: more fruits, vegetables and nuts along with less meat, salt, sugar and saturated fat.
But imagine, instead, if nutrition advice could be customized based on your specific genetic makeup and lifecycle—what Tufts University nutrition science professor Jeffrey Blumberg calls precision nutrition, an idea he says was once considered fringe. Blumberg visualizes a future where a cheek swab and rapid DNA analysis is a standard part of your annual checkup, so that dietary guidance can be tailored specifically to what’s ailing you: heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer and more.
“I’ll be able to tell you what kinds of fruits, what kinds of vegetables and what kinds of whole grains that you should be choosing, or exactly how often,” says Blumberg, who also directs the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts. “Or how about if I give you your own personalized K-Cup, so when you make your coffee in the morning, you’re getting it with the key ingredients you need? Or we can just have your 3-D printer in the kitchen print out a cookie or piece of chocolate that will contain that.”
Moving beyond averages
Current dietary requirements, however, are still determined by consensus, says Blumberg.
“That consensus has to do with the average person, who is of average weight and who’s healthy, and is either a man or woman of a particular age, and then they assign a number to it,” says Blumberg. “All 30-year-old women do not require, in my view, exactly 75 milligrams of vitamin C a day to meet their vitamin C requirements. Some may need less. Some may need more. How do you know who you are unless you start to apply some newer approaches?”
Among those newer approaches, he says, are tools like genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics. It’s all about finding optimal amounts and appropriate ratios of nutrient components—vitamins, minerals, proteins, fatty acids, carbohydrates, bioactives like carotenoids and flavonoids—and it’s hugely complex, says Blumberg.
“Food and nutrition science have now recognized where they play in what we call ‘systems biology,’” he says. “That is how the integration of all these factors about food consumption, digestion, distribution, metabolism activity are affected by you as an individual, and are also affected by the environment that you live in, whether it’s more or less polluted. Whether you’re exposed to more or less sunshine. Whether you’re more physically active or not, and what kinds of physical activity [you do].”
Better living through good nutrition
Blumberg says he wasn’t always interested in human nutrition. He started his career in pharmacology, and believed the way to better health was through improved drugs. Then when Blumberg was researching the effects of pollutants on brain function in 1980, Hamish Munro, founding director of the Mayer Center at Tufts, asked him a simple question: “What do you feed your [research] rats?”
“I’d never even thought about that,” says Blumberg. “It was a complete opening of my mind. Instead of looking at how toxicants damaged us using rat models, and how we could develop drugs to prevent it, I realized that nutrients could prevent [damage] and started working in nutrition. Now I no longer feel that the solution to all the world’s problems is better drugs—I think it actually happens to be better nutrition.”
Indeed, he’s been prolific in his research, publishing more than 300 scientific articles and serving in prestigious roles on committees that range from the Food and Drug Administration’s Dietary Supplements Task Force and the Food Advisory Committee, to the World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Consultation on the Development of Nutrition Guidelines for the Elderly. In 2014, Thomson Reuters included Blumberg on the list of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds.
But even in the complicated world of nutrition research, says Blumberg, what isn’t complex is that people are still going to want to eat things that taste good and are convenient and affordable. And that’s where he suggests the food industry needs to step in with more products that are both nutritious and processed to be appealing to consumers.
"I’m talking about . . . alternate food sources like insects and seaweeds,” says Blumberg. “Like looking at genetic engineering of plants, and manufacturing foods that are going to have profiles that are going to better fit what we consider to be healthy.
“We have the potential to do that.”