Our understanding of how diet affects health is limited to 150 key nutritional components that are tracked and catalogued by the US Department of Agriculture and other national databases. However, these nutritional components represent only a small fraction (less than 1%) of the more than 26,000 distinct, definable biochemicals present in our food – many of which have documented effects on human health but remain unquantified in any systematic fashion across individual foods.

In this interview with PCG, we interviewed Dr. Justin Siegel. Dr. Siegel is the Faculty Director of the Innovation Institute for Food and Health at UC Davis (website: https://foodaghealth.solutions/). Justin is at the forefront of the effort to track and catalog these important biochemicals in our food system. Justin has a background in biochemistry, and followed in the footsteps of his father, Brock Siegel, a famous physical organic chemist who helped develop automated DNA synthesis and sequencing technology back in the 90s, paving the way for Justin’s career in synthetic biology. You can read more about Justin’s background and journey here.

How did you start working at the intersection of health and food?

When I first began at UC Davis I turned my attention to the food industry, I didn’t realize how little we understand about the food system and the actual makeup of food. Coming from the biomedical and chemical industries, I had assumed we understood food as deeply as we understand these other sectors. When I started digging in, I was blown away by how little standardization there is around nutritional content and how these connect to performance – in terms of health outcomes and what farmers produce.

Why do you do this work?

I am very excited about how to bring the food industry into the 21st century and advance how the composition of foods affect health outcomes. The purpose of food is to deliver nutrition to humans to maximize our performance and our desires. It needs to be done in a delicious, culturally appropriate, and sustainable way.

One of the central questions I’m asking is: what do we need for human health to achieve human performance, and how can this performance create a pull for health outcomes that food can deliver on?  If we want to maximize efficiency of our food system, we must focus on maximizing the performance of our food instead of sheer volume.

What is nutritional yield? Why is it important? How would a focus on this metric change the way farmers grow food?

Today, we measure most farmer outcomes in bushels or pounds. These metrics don’t get into the nutritional quality of the food being produced and whether high quality nutrition is being delivered. Things are different in the pharmaceutical industry. Let’s take motrin, or any type of drug, you’re not looking at the mass of the pill but how much of the active pharmaceutical ingredient you’re taking.

The food industry does focus on this in the sale of vitamins and minerals, but these make up less than 1% of the mass of food we are eating. 99% is comprised of protein, fat, fiber, and sugar. We are still measuring these nutritional elements in bulk quantities, not in nutritional availability.

One example to illustrate the complexity of not knowing the nutrient contents of food is this movement towards plant based protein as a supplement of traditional protein sources. The challenge here, generally speaking, are that plant-based proteins on average are harder to digest, so our bodies can access only about half the essential proteins for muscle/immune/brain functioning if you look at a mass to mass ratio. Either we are going to need more protein per person, or we are going to have to fix this problem. I recently launched a company from my lab, Digestiva, to fix this problem without sacrificing flavor, format, or cultural preferences..

Another important point is that production is one thing, but it is also important to consider processing the food and ensuring there is nutritional availability after processing takes place. One example of this is the DIAAS score, which stands for the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Content. This Score is trying to better understand amino acids we are ingesting by the time food arrives on our plate.

Ultimately, if we are going to measure food production and processing by nutritional value, farmers should eventually be incentivized via nutritional yields.

Why should we create molecular maps of the food system? What’s a good example or two of why this is important?

Right now, for 1% of the food we eat, we have a good map of the molecular composition and the mechanisms by which those components relate to health outcomes. Unfortunately, for the remaining 99%, we make crude categorical measurements. Protein, Fats, and sugars all can have different nutritional attributes. For example, saying a food has 9 grams of protein is like saying a food has 100mg of vitamins.  You naturally ask which vitamins as you know different vitamins have different health attributes.  However, in a typical food there are more than 10,000 different proteins that compose those 9 grams, and each of those proteins has a unique health attribute. We are attempting to answer: which proteins? Which fats? Which sugars? These questions haven’t been answered.

What are some ways this knowledge could affect the healthcare industry?

I’ll give an example based on a really challenging disease: Celiac Disease. For this disease, there are certain parts of the protein that trigger our immune response. Through the fields understanding of the specific pieces of gluten proteins that trigger this disease we were able to develop new enzymes and use those to destroy the parts of gluten that trigger this physiological outcome. In essence, we can come up with remedies to these challenging diseases using more effective molecular mapping. We were then able to commercialize this enzyme through the startup PvP Biologics which was acquired by Takeda Pharmaceuticals in 2020.

What are some of the ways your Institute is taking life sciences/data science into the food world? What are some interesting trends going forward which investors should consider?

I think there are many ways we can take this information and create new technologies that represent a significant business opportunity.

Peak B, a company I helped found, is a nice example of utilizing modern biotechnology for upcycling (e.g. taking cabbage extracts and increasing its value and utility). I think there will be many such examples where we can leverage life science and data sciences to take what are traditionally looked at as waste streams or low-value products as new inputs for high value products that improve both human and planetary health.

I also predict that we will see more ways to create a variety of different food products and food technologies emerge from a more granular understanding of the biochemical elements of our food. These products will be more dialed into the various nutritional needs of humans and hopefully lead to better health outcomes.

There are many more examples of this work that I’m working on through the Institute.

If you are interested in learning more about Justin’s work, you can reach him here: [email protected]. More about the Innovation Institute for Food and Health can be found here: https://foodaghealth.solutions/.

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