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‘I'll have the DNA-optimised salad please': What's the future of clean eating?

From genetic scans to personalised nutrition.

The way we live is changing fast. Every fortnight in our Future Focus series, supported by Volkswagen, we’ll look at how one aspect of everyday life could change in the coming years. This week: ‘clean eats’.

AN APPLE A day keeps the doctor away, or so the old saying goes. But with more food options and more information than ever, the idea of eating healthily has changed greatly in the last few decades.

According to a recent Bord Bia survey, 88 per cent of Irish people recognise the importance of eating well, and nearly two-thirds want help when it comes to having healthier meals and snacks.

But in a busy and changing world, how do we eat well and how is that going to evolve in the future?

Dr Rena Barry-Ryan, lecturer in food product development at TU Dublin, says she is seeing plenty of trends but one of the big ones is flexitarianism. This involves people cutting back on the amount of meat they eat during the week, whether that’s for their health, the environment or food sustainability. Even Leo Varadkar is on board.

This dietary shift is then leading to an increase in new plant-based products, with companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods developing meat-free alternatives that taste, smell and ‘bleed’ like beef burgers.

Fake meat aside, Barry-Ryan adds that there are plenty of other healthy options that could become more common on our dinner tables in the coming years. This includes fermented drinks such as kombucha, hemp products, exotic fruits and berries that haven’t come to Europe yet, seaweed, and even insects.

Then on the more extreme side of things there are products like Soylent, the meal-replacement drink made popular by time-strapped techies in Silicon Valley, that claims to provide enough plant-based protein, vitamins and minerals for a full lunch.

Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

But Barry-Ryan isn’t convinced that this type of high-tech food is going to be for everyone in the future.

“We know how to make a food product that has the appropriate nutrition. You could get it in a vial or a supplement, but long-term how many people would want that? There’s a side to food that we enjoy, especially in social environments.”

So if we’re not all going to take to the idea of drinking a shake or popping a pill to get all our nutrients, what’s the way forward for healthy eating?

“The next big thing with technology is going to be personalised nutrition,” Barry-Ryan adds.

‘One size fits all’

What if your DNA could tell you exactly what you should be eating? That’s one of the ideas behind personalised nutrition, which aims to use genetic, physical and social factors to develop individual nutritional guidelines for each person.

Eileen Gibney, associate professor at UCD’s Institute of Food and Health, is currently conducting research in this area, looking at ways it could change how we eat well in the future.

“Traditionally we’ve given nutritional advice in terms of the healthy eating pyramid – a ‘one size fits all’ approach for the whole population. But the future of healthy eating is in the area of personalised nutrition,” Gibney says.

To figure out guidelines and recommendations that are tailored to a specific person, researchers are analysing things like diet, blood pressure, cholesterol and even DNA.

Although there is still a lot of research going on in this area, Gibney says that it is now becoming easier to get the required data for analysis. Smartphones are providing user-friendly ways to measure certain vital signs, with apps that can scan food labels and keep track of what you’re putting into your body every day.

“There’s now the ability with technology to capture what people are eating, to measure their own heart rate and blood pressure, their weight and height. When you harness all of that technology and data, we’ll be able to give personalised advice.

“We can say, ‘You need to increase your fibre, or your folate, or eat more oily fish’. That’s the kind of personalisation that I think will become natural.”

Source: Shutterstock/Dani Vincek

As well as creating a balanced diet that’s tailored to you, researchers will be able to recommend foods to embrace or avoid based on your genetic risk of developing certain diseases.

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With home DNA tests becoming more popular and less expensive, some startup companies are already offering custom eating plans based on genetics, such as DNA Fit in the UK and Habit in the US. But Gibney says that more factors need to be taken into account to give the full picture and make accurate nutrition plans.

“The science isn’t there yet. I can look at someone’s weight, height, genotypic risks and give advice based on that. But I also have to know what they are eating now, their likes and dislikes, how much money do they have to spend on food, can they cook, do they eat with their family or eat alone?

“Food is really complex and I think we have to remember that. The genotype stuff is scientifically very good, but it isn’t the only thing that will influence the correct advice for an individual.”

However, making a personalised nutrition plan could be something that everyone does from the comfort of their own home in the future. As technology advances on our phones and in our kitchens, we could even have connected systems that would make eating healthy a whole lot easier.

“I think in 20 years from now, I’ll be able to capture my DNA and my cholesterol levels at home. I’ll know what I’m eating by taking pictures on my phone every day and it’ll analyse the data,” Gibney says.

“Then it’ll give me advice. It will scan what’s in my fridge and could build a shopping list that will go to my online retailer. Food will be delivered along with recipes and my robot kitchen will be able to make dinner by the time I get home from work.”

Although the technology isn’t quite there yet and more developments are needed before personalised nutrition becomes a mainstream concept, Gibney says that the pieces are starting to come together.

So in a few years’ time your robot chef may be preparing seaweed bites, but you may also still be eating an apple a day if that is what’s recommended for you.

“We’ll still be eating fruits and vegetables, cereals and breads. We have been eating those for thousands of years so I don’t think that will change,” Gibney adds.

“But we will see changes that will make foods more sustainable, more suitable for changing populations, and we’ll be able to recognise what people need at an individual personalised level, helping them choose the foods that are right for their body.”

More: Bye-bye bifocals, hello bionic eyes: the future of seeing and hearing>

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