Mapping Uncharted Territory

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” is perhaps the oldest known nutrition advice, credited to Hippocrates circa 400 BCE. Although currently debated, it was meant to emphasize the role of nutrition in preventing and curing disease. Despite knowing the importance of nutrition for the last two millennia, the composition of our food is largely uncharted territory. Modern food composition cataloging systems, such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), track roughly 150 nutritional compounds commonly found in our diet. These include macronutrients (e.g., fats, proteins, and carbohydrates), micronutrients (e.g., vitamins and minerals), and some phytonutrients (e.g., flavonoids and carotenoids). However, these cataloged compounds represent just 0.5% of the estimated total 26,000+ biochemical compounds found in our food.  Deemed the “dark matter of diet,” these unknown compounds could be why foods like tea and garlic are thought to improve health. For example, garlic is known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that reduce blood pressure, which may be due to its organic sulfides and polyphenolic compounds. Considering the rise in chronic diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, maybe Hippocrates was right all along, and the key to preventing and curing disease lies in mapping this uncharted territory of nutritional dark matter. 


Exploring the New World

Scientific exploration often requires “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as Sir Isaac Newton famously adapted from the Latin grammarian, Priscian. One such giant in the scientific field was the Human Genome Project (HGP) which completed the first sequence of the human DNA blueprint in 2003. Considered one of the greatest feats in modern day science, mapping the human genome demonstrated the power of data sharing and charted the way for future collaborative science. Similarly, pioneers in the effort to map nutritional dark matter rely on freely available, open-access databases such as the FoodB database. This comprehensive resource contains information on tens of thousands of biochemical compounds which could create the blueprint for how the dark matter of our diet affects disease pathways. In the case of garlic, for example, the FoodB database lists 4,119 biochemical compounds found in garlic which could contain valuable information for health and disease.


Striking (Biochemical) Gold

Much like past explorers’ quests to discover gold, striking (biochemical) gold for nutrition scientists requires strategic work and perseverance. With over 99% of all biochemicals in our food not cataloged in standardized databases, it is hard to know where to look first. Advances in technology such as high-throughput sequencing and machine learning techniques have made it easier to map this uncharted territory, but much remains unexplored. However, discovering how these biochemical compounds affect metabolic pathways, genetic expression, and cellular signaling could greatly enhance our current understanding of disease mechanisms and open new routes to manage and treat disease.


 Peer Editor: Elise Edgar

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