The maxim of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “Dites-moi ce que vous mangez et je vais vous dire ce que vous êtes” — ‘you are what you eat’ — remains as pertinent today, in the era of modern medicine, as it did in 1826.
Indeed, the exceptional role of diet in health is well documented by decades of research in nutritional epidemiology, unveiling the role of nutrients and other dietary factors in cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes mellitus and other common diseases.
Yet, the bulk of our current understanding of the way food affects health is anchored in the 150 nutritional components that the USDA and other national databases track in the food supply and these nutritional components represent only a tiny subset of the total pool of definable biochemicals in the food supply.
The dark matter of nutrition
Consider garlic – a key ingredient of the Mediterranean diet; the USDA quantifies 67 nutritional components in raw garlic, indicating that this bulbous plant is particularly rich in manganese, vitamin B6, and selenium4. However, a clove of garlic contains more than 2,306 distinct chemical components — from allicin, an organosulfur compound responsible for the distinct aroma of the freshly crushed herb, to luteolin, a flavone with protective effects in cardiovascular diseases — none of which is quantified or tracked by the USDA.
They are, however, listed in FooDB, a database representing the most comprehensive effort to integrate food composition data from specialized databases and experimental data. As of August 2019, FooDB records the presence of 26,625 distinct biochemicals in food, a number that is expected to increase in the near future. This exceptional chemical diversity could be viewed as the ‘dark matter’ of nutrition, as most of these 26,625 chemicals remain largely invisible to both epidemiological studies, as well as to the public at large.
Interested in contributing to this journey?
Learn more about our career opportunities and apply now.