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Food for Thought

In Lausanne, the Nestlé international group is researching the diet of the future. It is intended to protect against diseases, keep people mentally fit or slow down aging. The new food should not only be good for the stomach, but also good for the brain.

Green beef curry? Lemon chicken? Or tofu with herbs? The beige Styrofoam box that Gene Bowman is carrying gives no sign of what he is going to be eating for lunch today. Most likely, however, the contents of the box come from the small Thai snack bar on the campus of EPFL Lausanne – quite a conventional lunch. Only after his break does Bowman get to work again on the food of the future.

Gene Bowman, 47, describes himself as a nutritional neuroscientist. To put it into everyday language, he does research into nerve nourishment for the brain. Bowman is convinced that our diet affects not only our waistlines – but also our brains. He already found some evidence of this when working at Oregon Health & Science University in the United States. He was recruited last year by Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences (NIHS) in Lausanne. 

The Fingerprint for Human Metabolism

The NIHS, housed in two concrete blocks on the EPFL site, is intended to lay the foundations for a new business line within the Nestlé group, Health Science Nutrition. The group's motto: Food is the best medicine. After all, we all take it at least three times a day. That's why it needs to get healthier and be specially adapted to the specific set of genes and lifestyle of each individual. In the wake of personalized medicine, now diets will become personalized, too. The institute was founded in 2011 to look at people and the food they eat in detail. Genes, proteins, metabolites, nutrients – everything is analyzed and quantified as a fingerprint for human metabolism.

The Institute was specifically positioned at the EPFL, with the president of the university also sitting on the NIHS committee. The scientists are doing pioneering work here. The effect of individual nutrients is not easy to research. After all, even small differences in lifestyle also affect the body and brain. In addition, the researchers cannot work with placebos as they do in pharmaceutical trials (one test subject gets the pill with the active ingredient, the other gets the pill without). For example, the test subjects also consume vitamins in their normal food. This makes for a complicated undertaking.

Researchers with Momentum

The project is also of interest because many people are developing an ambivalent attitude toward food. On the one hand, they long for food to be natural (organic! local! ancient grains!), on the other hand, they are increasingly suspicious of their food (gluten! lactose! histamines!). It will be interesting, therefore, to see how people react when the artificially refined food of the future eventually reaches the table.

Gene Bowman's research goal may sound ambitious, and comprehensive: "We want to develop ways to promote brain health through customized nutrition," he says. "To do this, we need to analyze the genes and nutritional status." Bowman is a realist; he doesn't expect everyone to start eating a healthy diet because of a few dietary recommendations. He also has a qualification in naturopathy and worked with patients for ten years. His experience: "It is extremely difficult to change peoples' habits." That's why this development work will also lead to powders and drinks, instant comfort food, so to speak, which ultimately fits into the business of his employer, Nestlé.

Vitamins and Fatty Acids vs. Dementia

The powders, however, will not simply aim to ward off colds or fatigue, like the nutritional supplements that many people are already taking today. They are intended to combat serious brain diseases like Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. Bowman has already discovered potential ingredients. In a study that attracted a great deal of attention a few years ago, he examined the blood of 100 healthy senior citizens. In addition, he tested their cognitive abilities and measured their brains. The results: people with a higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as the vitamins B, C, D and E, displayed greater mental fitness. Test subjects whose blood contained high levels of trans-fats did not perform as well. The trans-fats came, for example, from margarine and processed foods. Why then is it not possible to simply use vitamins and fatty acids to slow down dementia?

It is not quite that simple. All of the studies that have attempted this have failed. "Some substances appear only to work in conjunction with each other," says Bowman addressing one of the obstacles. "We are not yet certain whether we will be able to take advantage of these synergy effects."

Finding Out What and How to Feed the Brain

There has not yet been much research into another obstacle facing brain nutrition: the blood-brain barrier. It separates the brain from the bloodstream with special cells in order to protect the brain from pathogens or toxins. But other substances can get stuck. So it is not just a matter of finding out what nutrients the brain needs, but also figuring out how to get them there – and make sure they stay there. As people age, leaks can occur, through which important nutrients can seep before the brain cells can absorb them, says Bowman: "You can think of it like a sink. If we turn on the nutrient faucet with the drain open at the same time, not much happens."

One way to seal these leaks or avoid them altogether could be through the fine blood vessels that supply the brain, says Bowman: "High blood pressure is a risk factor for dementia. If we start there, we could reduce age-related dementia."

How Can We Live Longer?

Bowman's colleague at NIHS, Martin Kussmann, is looking into which nutrients are beneficial to the circulatory system and the rest of the body. His question is far-reaching. Which substances and functions help us to live a long life? "We were looking for people who have lived extremely long – to one hundred, and older – and remained very independent and healthy," says Kussmann. His colleague Sebastiano Collino, together with the University of Bologna, found them in Florence, Milan, and Bologna itself.

The researchers took blood and urine samples and analyzed them in the laboratory in Lausanne in massive metal tubes of over a meter in height. The tubes produce a strong magnetic field, much like MRI scanners in hospitals, but vertically. "This enables us to verify several hundred metabolic products. We get a very accurate fingerprint of metabolism," says Kussmann.

And the metabolism of the active hundred-year-olds was similar to that of significantly younger test subjects. "Their bodies are obviously able to deal with inflammation better and can repair damage better," says the biochemist. Aging means – viewed through a microscope – above all one thing: the accumulation of damage to cells caused by waste products of metabolism.

Gathering Data to Detect Symptoms 

"I am now half the age of our volunteers," says Kussmann. "And I go for a check-up every five years. In the future, we will get a lot more data from an investigation of this kind – and therefore be better able to detect the first signs of age-related ailments." As a scientist, he also wants to have the best remedies ready by then. "It is particularly exciting to see how it is possible to put these repair mechanisms into motion through nutrition." Antioxidants and probiotics are substances on which research is already being conducted today. Antioxidants protect cells from damage from highly reactive forms of oxygen that are generated during metabolism. Probiotics contain lactic acid bacteria, for example, or yeasts that may improve digestion. "If we can understand precisely what a healthy ecosystem in the gut of a particular person looks like, we can recommend certain substances such as probiotics, so as to provide a beneficial intestinal flora." So, first the diagnosis, then the customized menu. The first products could come onto the market in five to ten years, probably in pharmacies at first.

Baby Food for Everyone

One day, however, personalized food could also be sold in supermarkets, in a sort of modular system, perhaps in the form of small capsules that you simply put into a machine at home. We already have something like that: the coffee capsules that Nestlé is selling with the help of George Clooney. And there is another system already. It is a little bit less sexy, but smarter. It is a device that prepares baby food to correspond as closely as possible to the composition of breast milk. This changes as the baby gets older. "This is what the food of the future could look like," says Kussmann, quickly adding "at least for the sick or technophiles." The biochemist does not wish to shock everyone else. After all, the idea of capsule nutrition is not yet something that the majority of people would embrace. "Food is very emotional and is deeply engrained in our culture," says Kussmann. "Ultimately, it is not medicine, it has to taste good."

That's why we need to take another route – making basic groceries healthier without impacting their flavor. "Nestlé makes almost every kind of foodstuff; it would be possible to eat only Nestlé products," says the biochemist. The group also owns companies that produce foods that do not have such a good reputation, such as frozen pizzas. "Our scientific discoveries could have a positive effect on society in this way." He is, however, aware that it is not possible to simply remove all ingredients that are considered unhealthy. These are, after all, the ingredients that provide the flavor: salt, fat, sugar.

Sometimes It's About Nutrition

This is perhaps why Kussmann is so fond of telling people about his experience. He says it is what motivates him to go to work every day. This example is intended to show how great an influence nutrition can have on one's health. It involves a boy of slight stature who was ten centimeters shorter than the average for boys of his age. "He had a serious intestinal disease as a child. This was why he was not able to develop properly," says Kussmann. He was simply unable to absorb the nutrients from food. "The only thing that worked was medical nutrition, which gave him the nutrients that he needed and was able to absorb. At the same time they alleviated the inflammation."

The special diet lasted for two years. During this time, the patient only had to consume the special food every other month and was able to eat almost normally at other times. "He has now grown to a normal height and is healthy," Kussmann says with enthusiasm. Sometimes it actually is all about nutrition only. That means, however, that in most cases it is more complicated.

Stefanie Schramm is an author and science journalist in Hamburg. She works for "Die Zeit" and the radio station Deutschlandfunk, among others.