Embargo: 00:01 Tuesday 16th May 2006
A new GeneWatch UK report released today warns that the new science of nutrigenomics is the wrong priority for tackling the current epidemic of diet-related disease. Nutrigenomics (nutritional genomics) and the idea of 'personalised nutrition' are being promoted by the food industry as the solution to chronic diet-related diseases such as heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes (adult-onset diabetes). Dietary advice, supplements and new 'functional foods' are already beginning to be marketed to healthy people who are identified as genetically susceptible to future illness using genetic tests. In future, tests of other biological factors - not just genes - might also be used.
"The food industry wants to sell new expensive products which claim to be tailored to your genes", said Dr Helen Wallace, Deputy Director of GeneWatch UK. "But people cannot trust genetic testing companies and food manufacturers to tell them what their ideal diet is. The real solution to the growing epidemic of diet-related diseases involves tighter controls on processed foods and better access to fresh fruit and vegetables for people on low incomes".
The new report identifies several biotech companies already marketing misleading and unregulated genetic tests with dietary advice or supplements, mainly in the USA. It also highlights investments by major food and agrochemical companies, such as Nestlé and BASF, in this type of research. New food products likely to be marketed with genetic tests could also include genetically-modified GM foods; foods designed to alter appetite or mood; and foods with added nanotech ingredients.
The report also reviews the scientific evidence for the role of genes in susceptibility diet-related conditions such as obesity and heart disease. In most cases, genetic differences appear to make only small and subtle differences to a person's risk of diet-related disease and hence very little difference to the foods they should eat. The huge gap between dietary recommendations and what people actually eat is much more important. However, public health research on what helps people to change their diets or get more exercise has been neglected, despite enormous costs to the NHS (2).
"Genetically-tailored diets are a false solution to the epidemic of obesity", said Dr Wallace, "The food industry's priorities are not the right priorities for tackling this problem. If all nations become fast food nations, millions more people will suffer from diseases linked with eating too much unhealthy fat, salt and sugar. Failure to invest in public health research could also cripple the NHS".
GeneWatch also warned that personalised nutrition could harm health by:
- targeting the wrong dietary advice at the wrong people (either by wrongly identifying those at high genetic risk, or wrongly implying that they have most to gain by changing diet);
- confusing healthy-eating messages (for example, by implying that existing dietary advice is guesswork, and by different companies selling many different products and proffering conflicting advice);
- undermining public health approaches (by implying that only a minority of people with bad genes need to eat a healthy diet);
- medicalising genetic risk (increasing costs and side-effects by encouraging people to buy medicines, supplements and functional foods instead of fruit and vegetables);
- diverting resources (including research resources) from more effective approaches.
For further information contact:
Dr Helen Wallace, GeneWatch UK: 01298-871898 (office); 07903-311584.
Notes for editors:
- The 128-page GeneWatch report: "Your diet tailored to your
genes: preventing diseases or misleading marketing?" is available on:
A shorter briefing: "Nutrigenomics: the future of nutrition?" is available on: www.genewatch.org/publications/briefs/brief35.pdf
- In his 2004 report to the Treasury, on how to cut costs to the NHS by improving public health, Derek Wanless warned that: "The dearth of [public health] evidence is not unrelated to the lack of funding of public health intervention research - with funding from research organisations and the private sector heavily directed towards clinical, pharmaceutical, biological and genetic research - and the lack of a clear and coherent set of Government priorities for the public health research which does exist" (Chapter 5, summary). Available on: http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/consultations_and_legislation/wanless/consult_wanless04_final.cfm .