For many years we may have been eating so many foods but we actually have limited knowledge of what they are composed of.
“Our understanding of how diet affects health is limited to 150 key nutritional components,” says Albert-László Barabási at Harvard Medical School, who coined the term nutritional dark matter. “But these represent only a small fraction of the biochemicals present in our food.”
This knowledge has been transformative for health sciences, helping unveil the role of calories, sugar, fat, vitamins and other nutritional factors in the emergence of common diseases, these nutritional components represent only a small fraction of the more than 26,000 distinct, definable biochemicals present in our food—many of which have documented effects on health but remain unquantified in any systematic fashion across different individual foods.
New advances such as machine learning, a high-resolution library of these biochemicals could enable the systematic study of the full biochemical spectrum of our diets, opening new avenues for understanding the composition of what we eat, and how it affects health and disease.
Barabási argues that it is time for nutritionists to go dark-matter hunting, to massively expand our knowledge of what is on our plate and its impact on us.
In 2017, investigators at the Scripps Research Institute, Department of Molecular Medicine, reported there are a number of nonnutritional amino acids found in vegetable products and these have the potential to be misincorporated into proteins if ingested.
Azetidine-2-carboxylic acid (Aze), for instance, is a nonnutritional amino acid found in sugar beets and lilies. It has been proposed that consumption of Aze by gestating mothers may be connected to some forms of multiple sclerosis in their offspring.
The hypothesis currently under examination is that the misincorporation of a nonnutritive amino acid in a native protein can endogenously result in the production of a foreign protein, which can then trigger an immunological reaction in the cell types where it appears.
In this particular example, the interrelationship between dietary factors and health outcomes is very complex. How many years will it take to solve this mystery? Only time will tell.