In recent years, I’ve noticed growing interest in personalized health among research organizations, academic institutions, and corporations alike. FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research, for example, has a special Division of Personalized Nutrition and Medicine that studies personalized health in order to discover new, effective ways to meet national and even global nutrition needs. The division says it aims to achieve this by implementing “research strategies that account for genetic, environmental, and cultural diversity that influence expression of genetic makeups.” Researchers from academic institutions such as the University of California-Davis Center for Nutrigenomics, Penn State University’s Center of Excellence in Nutrigenomics, and many others have also been conducting studies on personalized health and nutrition as it pertains to genetics. Nutrigenomics is essentially the study of how nutrition, through an individual’s diet, can affect his or her DNA—specifically in the way his or her genes are expressed.
This concept is commonly illustrated through the Agouti Mouse Paradigm. Agouti mice are genetically identical; however, an obese agouti mouse’s coat will be yellow, while its slim counterpart will have a brown coat. What’s interesting is that you can alter the color of an agouti mouse’s fur simply by varying the mother’s diet before, during, and after pregnancy. So essentially, through diet and nutrition, you can “switch” on and off certain genes. Moreover, these “genetic changes” can be passed down to future generations. We also now know the converse is true: our genetic makeup can dictate how we react to certain nutrients. Thus, there is an intimate relationship between nutrition and genetics, biochemistry, and physiology.
Nutrigenomics is therefore significant, not only as a matter of improving public health but because it can have widespread implications on the way we understand and practice nutrition. Existing research is nascent, but promising. We know that our diets can impact our health, such as in disease development, so by understanding individual genes and the specific ways in which they respond to diet and nutrition, we can increase the efficacy of the products and services we provide. As new research emerges, companies have to be poised to respond to increasing consumer demand for nutrition that is individually personalized.
Currently, it costs about $10,000 to get one’s DNA sequenced, making genetic-based products and services cost-prohibitive for many companies and unaffordable to the average consumer. Additionally, there isn’t enough research on this topic yet—that is, we know that diet and nutrition can, in effect, change our DNA, but we still don’t know what all the specific causes and effects are. And we also don’t know how an individual’s small genetic variations will affect the metabolism of nutrients.
One way USANA Health Sciences has been positioning itself to meet this growing trend of personalized nutrition is by offering vitamin packs—we call it the MyHealthPak—that are customized to an individual’s lifestyle and health needs. Customers take a health assessment online, which then allows us to tailor a supplements regimen to that individual’s results and personal health goals.
While not a genetic assessment, it is still a valuable way to satisfy existing consumer demand for personalized health programs. Baby Boomers are one demographic showing a great deal of interest in these kinds of programs, especially because aging seniors face more health issues while their bodies are less able to absorb and retain certain nutrients.
The positive feedback we’ve received, as well as the market research we’ve seen, suggest that personalized nutrition and health will continue to trend upward. As new nutrigenomics research is released, we will have an even better understanding of what the future of nutrition will look like.