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S7 E1 – Will Data One Day Dictate What We Individually Eat?

Lab tests, wearable tech and all sorts of other breakthroughs are making us all question and better the way we live our day to day lives. Are we moving toward a future where our DNA will have the main say in what food we tuck into? Are we close to that possible future?

Best soundbite: “There’s a little Barry Taylor running around in a lab somewhere begging to be let out” – Barry Taylor

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  1. theanita1

    Barry hit the nail on the head stating that we give away our data way too easily; often data is being collected on us when we don’t even know it, most of the time without our consent. And just because they have the data, it doesn’t mean that they are being true to our needs – the coconut milk example could be construed that maybe they have a large stock of lower fat coconut milk that’s going to expire and so they are manipulating you to think you’re being kind to yourself but in fact your not. As you guys said – it’s more often a marketing ploy then it actually being for our benefit.

    The idea of giving away my personal DNA information goes too far for me – it makes me think of that movie “Gattaca”, and despite the fact that you can indicate that they cannot use my data afterwards there is no guarantee that they will destroy the data or are only using this information only for my testing purposes and it could be used for nefarious outcomes. I firmly believe that someone who has access to this data will use this for bad intentions.

    To answer the question, data will influence our decisions, but in the end we still have free choice (for now).

  2. tatja

    Hi guys! I don’t think im super qualified to comment as i don’t work on food science, but i am a scientist working for a phd in molecular biology, so i (think I) know a few things about genes xD

    DNA is really just the basic guideline, and there is so many other levels that the enzymes that are involved in your food intake and energy production processes are controlled at. It is very hard to infer a true meaning of the sequence of a few genes in the context of something so complex as a whole metabolic process.
    If you were to do some sort of genetic based study you would probably have to do whole genome analysis to have a broader idea of how all of these genes ( and the proteins they give rise to) form a cohesive process, but still you’d be missing some information.
    Also on a relatively separate note I am a bit sceptical in general about this very complex science being brought into our everyday life, I think it will encourage self diagnosing and hypochondria. People don’t necessarily understand fully (nor do I think they should) the science behind it and would quickly jump to conclusions.(I hope I dont sound like a complete asshole by saying this but scientists spend years understanding and interpreting sequencing data, I guess it could work with some sort of genetic consultant working with you to understand it better).

    I think you guys were pretty spot on with your reservation towards this analysis, and also I think the guy biome idea is probably more meaningful right now, although I have no idea how they collect the bacteria and analyse them! Do you maybe have a link to that study/ company you could share?
    Thanks and a great chat!

  3. alm477

    …So I actually work in a lab that focuses on gene environment interaction, though my role is mostly data collection and coordination rather than analysis. So while I can give a good elevator pitch/basic explaination I can’t go into snp and gene specifics (or only really random specifics). Luik was REALLY spot on though. Commercial DNA tests can give you information, but it is information you should take not with a pinch of salt but with a barrel. For a personal example, I got a 23andme test for participating in a (different, not the one I work on!) study and while a large amount of the information tracked onto what I knew about myself and my family it was also surprising what was wrong. They can’t in good conscience (or legally) make claims that are too strong, but my results told me that I am likely to have dark eyes and that I am unlikely to have a widows peak–but both results are demonstrably incorrect. Hilariously, the study I participated in is meant to help get more appearance data from DNA, so hopefully the difference between my genes and my appearance will help them get better at it!

    As for data driven nutrition…on one hand we are already going that direction (as the availability of these tests shows). However, who will be able to afford these tests? Will they be added to the usual infant blood panels/tests done at birth? Or are they something only people with money can afford? There can also be a cost to outsourcing listening to your body to external data gathering–there are people who hurt themselves trying to get a “good” number of steps because they did not listen when their bodies said STOP. There are people who use calculating calories to enable an eating disorder. Don’t get me wrong, there are absolutely times where frequent and accurate data is vitally important (diabetes, as you pointed out) but what will all that extra information do for those who strictly speaking don’t need to be monitored that closely?

    I am also skeptical that even if highly personalized data is available it may not actually mean much for changing people’s behavior, especially not on a population-wide scale. Information is well and good, but if the structure of a persons life is not understood, accounted for, and addressed than just giving them information is likely to fail to change behavior. For example, many people know that they need 8-9 hours of sleep at night, however not everyone’s life is structured in a way that allows for them to actually make that change and get that sleep (small baby, multiple jobs, night shifts, hours of homework, homelessness, illness, etc).

    Also, does the UK not have laws that allow patients to access their medical records (including parents accessing their minor child’s records)? In the US we have HIPPA and all you would have to do here is fill out a form (well, probably Haley, since tests run at birth might be in her records) and send it in to the hospital…

    And not to be too gross or anything, but how would that little robot stay in your gut? Generally speaking, these things do pass. I am having horrible thoughts about how it might anchor itself O_O Or if you have to keep swallowing those little robot pills on a schedule (which could make a lot of money for the company I guess). Yikes.

  4. Dimi

    Great topic!
    Firstly, the higher microphones have made it much easier to hear everyone, but the placement and seating makes it seem very impersonal. James had his back to the camera a lot and Ben was hidden behind the mic a lot.
    Now onto the topic.
    I’m still very sceptical about the whole DNA thing. Going off your descriptions they base the results off everyone else’s results with similar DNA markers. But then you disprove the effectiveness of this technique with the identical twins example. I think it’s a great idea in theory, but the science hasn’t quite caught up to the claims some of these companies are making.
    I’m interested to see the other guys results because the results for Jamie were mostly very broad healthy alternatives. Brown rice over white, don’t eat too much charred/ smoked meat, eat leafy greens, all things that have been given as health/ nutritional advice for a long time.
    I am much more interested in the gut biome analysis. I remember when I was tested for lactose sensitivity it was done through a breathe test, where I had to breathe into a bag, then drink some pure lactose, then breathe into another bag an hour or so later and they somehow compared them and told me I was lactose intolerant.
    And I guess lastly I’ll touch on what these companies are doing with your data, because at the moment legislation hasn’t caught up with them, and they can sell it to whoever they want.

  5. JoRo

    This is an interesting one, have to agree with James the DNA testing sounds far too general in the advice given – though there is part of me tempted do it just to see if it will in some way pick up on the foods that I already know make me ill?

    I’d be more likely to do something like the gut biome mini robot, because it’s very up to the moment data (trying to work out how that system would work, weekly robot pill? after all it will get passed through digestive system and end up getting flushed down the drain).

    I would also want to know what else my data would be used for, will this result in some very niche targeted advertising?

    This is ever so slightly off topic, but it popped into my head during the Waitrose discussion, as far as the personalised online supermarket shopping experience goes, I’d settled for being able to attach a list of foods that I cannot have to my account so that when I search for things anything that contains those foods isn’t shown and I don’t have to spend ages reading through ingredients to see if it’s safe or not.

    • Luik

      I think the gut robot was only conceptual in the sci fi sense of wouldn’t that be cool, I didn’t find anything online about it (didn’t search terribly hard though). Other than the issue you mentioned about us ejecting it on the regular (and since we’re not rabbits, reuse is out of the question), even if we had something clever to do with the data, any meaningful tests about bacteria can’t be done in that setup currently (and since known tests use up reagents, possibly ever). So if it is anywhere near production it’s just another stupid gimmick testing something very general and prescribing something equal parts harmless and useless.

      Your idea about ingredients is so simple and brilliant, it would make life so much easier for a lot of people. Since grocery stores are designed to make you walk around and search for stuff to encourage impulse buying, the cynic in me wonders if there’s a reason why they haven’t implemented such a thing yet in online stores.

      • Sorted

        Interesting about what you say about supermarkets and impulse buying. Similar to petrol stations avoiding pay at pump solutions. Sometimes the easiest, efficient, sensible technologies are to the detriment of corporates. So maybe we’re not moving forward quite as quick as we think!

        • Luik

          Yeah, there’s little progress without profit. You can let us know if the guys start receiving ads for diet supplements such as: take this antioxidant and enjoy your bacon. Or some such. You are sensitive to carbs, eat our personalized diet plan, only £10 per meal. The vitamin industry is super profitable currently and I’d be surprised if they won’t try to bundle some other “services” together with the dna results. Or what do I know. Maybe I’m just an evil genius and have wasted all my talent for evilness.

  6. BellaV

    This was an interesting podcast – though I don’t agree with a lot of it.

    The overall feeling was that the products you described (the DNA nutrition stuff and the robot chocolate idea) were really about outsourcing responsibility for your health, and allowing people to make money out of your vulnerabilities.

    For people who like science (hi Ben!), they aim to seduce by telling you that this is “scientific”, whereas the things I’ve read (and your comments) lead me to believe that these are really very general recommendations, with very little personalisation.

    And for people who might have concerns about their health (Barry, I wanted to give you a hug!)- these companies seem out to convince you that if you pay them money you will get reassurance that you are looking after yourself. Whereas you will really be paying money for generic info (in the case of DNA) or to make very expensive wee (if you go down the path of the chocolate.

    I was glad to see that James, at least, seemed to have a healthy level of scepticism, and a desire to work out the value in paying for any of this, or whether these companies are just being smart about monetising wellbeing, without giving actual value.

    Overall, I’m left wondering if this whole approach to wellbeing is “pretentious or not”? You decide!

    • Annie1962

      “….Overall, I’m left wondering if this whole approach to wellbeing is “pretentious or not”? You decide!”

      Ha! Well said.
      I think nutrition really should be based on moderation. Eat meats (if you wish) eggs or tofu for proteins, lots of healthy vegies. fruit and drink water – moderation in the other things and we should be fine.

      Have regular health checks for blood pressure and diabetes. Exercise.

    • Bebbrell

      Monetising and marketing at the vulnerable… an interesting point. I guess it’s more about how the results are interpreted. What was reassuring was how different each of our genetic results were. Not that it’ll provide the perfect fix.

  7. Annie1962

    P.S I hope you get some more sleep Baz – I can see you’re overtired and need a good night’s sleep. You couldn’t think too straight – common symptom of parent-itis x

  8. Annie1962

    Interesting topic boyz

    Lots of thoughts going through my mind as

    how someone become diabetic 2 due to the overconsumption of sugary foods and yet others who do the same don’t get diabetes? Just like someone who’s slim and have a healthy diet becomes diabetic. Is the propensity for diabetes in our genes all along, regardless of eating habits? This goes for heart disease as well.

    With the new mic stands – they kinda block the view and I never had trouble hearing you before anyway; but the angle of view is horrible. It’s very impersonal and I just felt kinda excluded. Before with you all facing us it was much better – now we just see the side of James’s head. Not a fan.

    • Bebbrell

      Thanks for microphone feedback. Lots of people listening without video so we wanted to make it super clear. But we’re recording more this week… so will take another look at the set-up!

      • Annie1962

        Thank you Ben x I prefer to see your faces, you can read a lot into facial expressions.

  9. LadyPixelHeart

    Great episode my only complaint is this might not be the best camera angle lol Ben’s mic keeps blocking his face.

    • Sorted

      As it’s mainly an audio podcast- we’ve had to move precedent over the sound quality to rectify complaints! Hopefully it’s better on that side now!

  10. cathio

    Thank you for raising the mics! Much easier to hear Barry & James 😀

  11. Luik

    I’m really impressed by James in this discussion, he has good instincts.

    It’s interesting that you brought up microbiome yourself, because compared to the variability in food consumption explained by genetics (leaving aside mutant enzymes for now), variation in microbiome has shown way bigger effects. That said, our current knowledge is not enough that I’d recommend anyone to go and sequence their microbiome, other than to be a participant in a scientific study (you shouldn’t pay for that). A case that comes to mind is a woman who sued her daughter (probably to get money from insurance?) after she became obese after a faecal transplant. Discussion for a podcast: faecal transplants?

    Compared to that, again other than if you have a non-functional enzyme, genetics seems to play a modest role on a population level, and on an individual basis in my opinion is really not worth it to bother about. I had a look at the companies you used. Vitl offered barely any information of what they were actually doing with your sample, if it’s a snp array (you’re looking at a single nucleotide, so a single letter of your gene of interest (or sometimes a couple of them), where other people have reported variations in humans, which are (on a population level) associated with a health outcome, or if they actually sequenced the genes they looked at ( I also couldn’t find which genes these were). I did see that you guys can ask for the raw data, which I recommend you do.

    The other company DNAfit at least reported the analysis (snp array) and which genes they’re looking at and which base pairs are associated with what outcomes, although again no references. Altogether I’m really unhappy with the lack of transparency. I’m a scientist, and what I expect and want is that I’m given enough information so that I can understand what is being done with my sample, and what the evidence is for it. Both were lacking for Vitl, the latter was lacking DNAfit. And I think that’s highly unethical.

    But on the bright side at least they barely have any information about you. Unless they have lots of storage space for your dna, which by the way is highly stable… But I’m pretty sure it’s fine.

    All in all the horoscope analogy is pretty much bang on. This is about as informative as a quiz about which Potter house you belong to (go Ravenclaw!), just more expensive. Although I can see some value for people who don’t know their biological parent(s). For others: save your money and go skydiving, now that was super fun!

    By the way, in case this was unclear, I in no way blame you for doing it or, I guess in a way promoting it, because the language they used makes it sound very scientific. As I said, I find their lack of transparency unethical, and wouldn’t expect a non-specialist to be able to see through it (well done James!)

    • Luik

      Listening again, it sounds to me like Barry, and perhaps others, think these companies have sequenced your whole genome and are just letting you know about a couple of the genes. That is not the case. Whole genome sequencing still costs about 1000$ to perform (without any “services” added). They’ve either sequenced some genes, or just determined small regions where humans have mutations in those genes (there wasn’t enough information provided to determine, DNAfit did the latter). They might have kept your genomic DNA, you’d get a hint to that in their terms and conditions. DNA is highly stable, while we usually store it frozen for longer periods, it actually also survives at room temperature very well. So theoretically you wouldn’t need freezer space if you wanted to store samples and didn’t mind some quality loss. However it’s highly unlikely they would do this because there’s no value currently in doing this. It’s more likely that they regularly get rid of old samples to free up valuable freezer space once your sample is analyzed. In which case they have only limited information about your genes (which we’ve determined is pretty useless). I don’t know how easy it is to get them to delete that information about you, that could be an interesting topic for you to investigate as you attempt to purge their databases of your info. I’d be quite interested to see what happens when you ask them for your raw data to keep for yourself and then attempt to get your info deleted from their side.

  12. suebarnes

    Saw the episode about Jamie’s genome – was not impressed – eat more brown rice, brown bread etc. eat less charred foods, eat more vegetables, eat less smoked bacon – that is generic stuff that you can read on the interweb without paying for a genetic test and is standard advice.

    • Sorted

      It will be interesting to see if the other 4 have the same generic style advice. Maybe these tests don’t work at all?

      • Annie1962

        LOL like the Harry Potter test… who knows. It may just be a selection of about 10 different ‘results’. See if anyone’s is exactly the same. Would be fun if James’s test was exactly the same as Jamie’s.

        • Luik

          Just to clarify, the problem here likely isn’t that they’re not even doing the genetic testing (otherwise they’d get in massive trouble). Say that 2 variants commonly exist in humans in any given gene region that they test for (theoretically 4 exist in total for any position due to 4 different nucleotides (=dna letters) but they’re not all necessarily common due to evolution). If they test for 15 genes, with just 2 variants in each, that already gives 2^15 = 32768 combinations. And that’s all fine and might even sound impressive. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re able to give meaningful diet advice based on that information, or that there even is any meaningful diet advice to dole out based on that information.

    • Bebbrell

      True, we simplified a lot of it… what was interesting is when you compare it to the other results. Not that any of the other results say eat lots of refined carbs… but some of us have a very low sensitivity to carbohydrate intake. The opposite of Jamie. So yes, the results are fairly generic and if you adhere TO THEM ALL then you’re probably covered anyway. But the principle here is that some are more important to your personal genetic make-up than others.

  13. marityne

    I would definitely take a DNA test to see how the results compare to what I already know about my body and how it reacts to certain foods. I had one type of DNA test done many years ago. My older brother was diagnosed with Celiac disease and it was suggested that the rest of the family get tested as well. Luckily my test came back negative. I would be curious to see if my “likely hereditary” high cholesterol actually shows up on a DNA test. I’d also love to find out if I have a caffeine sensitivity as I can only have caffeine for a couple of days before it affects my ability to sleep.

    I think genetic testing is going to be a regular part of our health and wellness plans in the future. It will likely become a part of the testing done when a child is born to warn the parents of any potential health issues or even allergies. Imagine how much easier it would be if a parent knew their child could have a peanut allergy (or any other food allergy) before that child eats a peanut and has to be rushed to a hospital for treatment.

    I don’t know if knowing my results would drastically alter how I cook or eat on a regular basis but it might encourage me to make better decisions more often.

    • Bebbrell

      Yeah… interesting to consider whether it becomes more normalised at birth to undertake a test like this.

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