Personalised diet plans will not be widely accepted by the public until regulations are in place to protect information about our DNA, new research has shown.
Led by Newcastle University, the Food4Me project is a €9-million EU project investigating the potential of nutrigenomics - a relatively new branch of nutrition which looks at how the food we eat affects the behaviour of our genes.
Using DNA, experts are able to look at not just the usual factors such as age, sex, BMI and physical activity, but also the way in which each individual's genes interact with the food we eat. This in turn enables them to create a bespoke nutrition plan.
Research is continuing, but early indicators suggest the technology could offer a vital tool in the fight against various lifestyle-linked diseases such as obesity, heart disease and Type II diabetes.
However, a study by the Newcastle-led team and published today in the online journal PLOS ONE, suggests that despite the potential benefits of nutrigenomics, people's reluctance to hand over personal data is likely to prevent widespread uptake of the system.
Study lead Professor Lynn Frewer, Professor of Food & Society in the School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at Newcastle University, explains, "There's an assumption in many communities that people are risk averse to food technologies such as GM and nutrigenomics.
"But actually, we found the opposite. The people we questioned could really see the benefits of this approach but said they were yet to be convinced that it would be worth the risk of handing over data about their DNA.
"Nutrigenomics has the potential to be the next big thing in our fight against lifestyle-linked diseases, particularly if it becomes available on the NHS."
Poor nutrition contributes to the incidence of many diseases. It has been estimated that approximately 80 per cent of cases of cardiac disease, stroke, Type II diabetes and 40 per cent of cancers could be avoided through improved lifestyle, including those related to diet.
Above and beyond this, an individual's predisposition to certain diseases based on genetic variation will also play a major role and in turn influence what constitutes an 'optimal diet'.
The mapping of the human genome in 2000 introduced the possibility of individualised medicine, including personalised nutrition and the field of ''nutrigenomics'' emerged - examining the relationship between food and gene expression.
Questioning 9,381 participants from nine European countries (Germany, Greece, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Norway, and the UK) the team were able to investigate the psychological factors influencing people's willingness to adopt a personalised diet plan.
They found protection of consumers' genetic data was a key limiting factor, particularly as there are only a handful of companies currently offering the service and these are run on a commercial basis.
"Guidelines around fat, sugar, alcohol and other foods are based on averages and they work very well - but they are just a guide," explains Professor Frewer.
"The problem is that we are all unique so, for example, one woman's ability to metabolise sugar might be wildly different from another's, even though on the outside they are both 50 years old, of similar height and weight and exercise regularly.
"The difference is in their genes and with nutrigenomics we can start to delve down into these differences and tailor dietary plans for the individual. It's incredibly exciting but we need to get the regulations in place first if it is going to make an impact on public health."