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What is the 'dark matter' in food that can help prevent cancer

Shin Suzuki

We talk about proteins, sugar, vitamins, but 99% of what makes up our food is practically unknown. "Garlic is good for your health." A phrase said thousands of years ago by humanity and one that you have undoubtedly heard. However, it is much more recent the understanding by the science of how garlic is good for health. For this, it was necessary to decipher its chemical composition.

The compound allicin, for example, inhibits the proliferation of cells that spread colon cancer — and it's also responsible for the aroma of garlic when it's freshly grated. On the other hand, Luteolin offers properties that help prevent cancer and heart disease, according to some studies.

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In every food we eat every day, tens of thousands of other biochemical structures need to have their characteristics and potential explored. We are used to hearing about proteins, sugar, fat, calories, vitamins, but about 99% of what makes up our food is virtually unknown.

The vastness to be explored in the set of nutritional factors has been compared to the "dark matter" of the Universe, the invisible and little-known substance that permeates space and accounts for 80% of all matter in the cosmos.

The term appeared linked to the food context at the end of 2019, in an article published in the scientific journal Nature, signed by scientists Albert-László Barabási, Giulia Menichetti, and Joseph Loscalzo, from Harvard and Northeastern universities, in the USA.

At the time, the survey cited 26,625 food elements cataloged in the largest database of its kind in the world, the Canadian food. Currently, that number stands at 70,926 — and with each discovery, the list expands.

Only a tiny fraction (150 in 2019) of this total has already established information such as chemical concentration and its effects.

To BBC News Brasil, scientist and co-author of the study Giulia Menichetti said that discoveries would make it possible to understand how food chemical compounds and proteins in the human body occur.

It holds promise for more effective treatments and prevention programs against diseases such as cancer.

And with a much broader catalog of nutritional information, "it will also be possible to help public health agencies to simulate food substitution scenarios", she says.

The researchers emphasize that using artificial intelligence, specifically machine learning — in which machines learn patterns from historical data and create new models for human or automated analysis — to decipher nutritional "dark matter" will be essential.

An artificial intelligence model was powered with 8,000 molecules of foods like grapes, tea, oranges and carrots. From that came out 100 candidate molecules for potential anticancer.

The US Department of Agriculture's PhyteByte, another artificial intelligence project, also scans food databases to predict how these compounds will react inside the human body.

A team at Imperial College London, for example, is focused on "digging" and discovering anticancer molecules or other elements that act against neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, and viral diseases.

The challenge is understanding what exactly a healthy diet goes beyond understanding nutritional compounds better: it also resides in our body's complex chemical chain — the influence of enzymes, metabolism, and processes in the gut microbiota.

Imagine someone who ate meat seasoned with garlic. Red meat molecules go through a metabolic process in the intestine and conversion in the liver, which turns into a substance in the body called trimethylamine N-oxide or TMAO.

Scientists have found that cardiac patients are four times more likely to die from any cause if they have high levels of TMAO in their blood.

If the meat is consumed with garlic, the allicin in the seasoning mentioned earlier can block the production of an earlier form of TMAO — TMA.

With the problem fixed at its source, TMAO levels remain lower in the bloodstream.

But eating rump steak with garlic is no guarantee against heart attacks. It is also necessary to consider the temperature conditions of the preparation and, in the case of an item with a high level of industrialization, the influence of the toxins added in the production, conservation and packaging processes.

And as the study by Imperial College London points out, there are particularities of each individual's organism and lifestyle.

This myriad of factors may explain the questions raised by both the scientific community and the general population about food research: studies sustaining, for example, that "egg is healthy" one day, and others concluding the following week that its daily consumption can lead to the risk of shortening someone's life.

"This idea of ​​identifying a certain food associated with a certain disease is almost an impossible mission," says Carlos Augusto Monteiro, professor at the Faculty of Public Health at USP and coordinator of the Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health (NUPENS/USP).

Therefore, a current line of investigation in nutritional science is identifying eating patterns that favor or harm health.

"There is now an interest in studying eating patterns because they influence the development of a disease. It is challenging for you to isolate a specific item in a relationship between food and disease. People don't choose foods one by one; it's a block. For example, in a feijoada, you are eating beans, meat, the fat used in the preparation, garlic, and onion. You cannot separate one thing from the other. They are food 'clusters'", explains Monteiro.

The USP professor is leading a large study that aims to monitor 200,000 people in Brazil for a minimum period of 10 years. Their eating patterns will be analyzed in association with the risk of developing non-communicable chronic diseases (diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and various types of cancer).

Another similar survey, carried out with 100,000 participants between 2009 and 2017 by the University of Paris, France, and with a contribution from USP, demonstrated the relationship between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and diseases that affect a large group of people.

"We identified about ten years ago a characteristic of the eating pattern that is very much based on a way that is far from what is natural, a pattern in which the person practically consumes only food that is so processed that you no longer distinguish its original element. Is the food that makes instant noodles? A hydrogenated fat, palm oil, salt, sodium glutamate simulate the taste of protein, meat, powder with aromas. The macronutrient there is no longer the original food. While in a meal prepared in a pot, in a standard kitchen, you identify the food, it is still obvious."

Modern life

For Andrea Pereira, clinical nutrition support physician in the Oncology area at Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein and author of the recently released book Diet of Balance - The Best Anticancer Diet, "science knows that vegetables, legumes, and fruits have many antioxidant factors, and this will lead to greater protection of the organism and the improvement of the immune system."

She says that "everyday cells divide wrongly, but not everyone is going to get cancer. Because the immune system protects you, but a compromised immune system won't work, and that's associated with a bad diet, low intake of fruits".

In Pereira's explanation, "modern life leads you to consume more caloric forms and with less fiber. Fiber takes longer to chew. People eat in a few minutes in front of the computer, in front of the TV, ultra-processed foods with high calories and lots of fat".

"Fiber stimulates the gastrointestinal tract, with less absorption of fat. If your intestines don't work well, you have more local inflammation, which increases the risk of cancer in the gastrointestinal tract," she says.

As Michael Bronstein, of the team at Imperial College London, who uses artificial intelligence to establish the relationship between nutritional "dark matter" and potential treatments for disease, recalls, "diet is perhaps the single most important factor in modifying the risk of developing cancer. "

"That's what encourages us to take a closer look at what we eat."


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