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EPFL promotes personalized nutrition with Food & You

©  Murielle Gerber / EPFL 2019

© Murielle Gerber / EPFL 2019

EPFL’s Digital Epidemiology Laboratory has launched Food & You – one of Switzerland’s first citizen science initiatives on personalized nutrition. The study aims to create a digital cohort that will help scientists develop nutritional guidelines that can be personalized to specific individuals.

Several studies over the past few years have shown that what constitutes a healthy diet for an individual depends to some extent on his or her physiology and lifestyle. This has given rise to the concept of personalized nutrition, where nutritionists take specific information about an individual into account to develop personalized healthy-eating guidelines. For example, scientists have found that individuals’ glycemia – or blood-sugar level – varies according to their diet, lifestyle (e.g., amount of exercise and sleep) and the composition of their intestinal bacteria (also known as “gut flora”).

A crowdsourcing approach to scientific research

To help further research into personalized nutrition, scientists at EPFL’s Digital Epidemiology Laboratory, headed by Marcel Salathé, have launched the Food & You study. The goal is to confirm the theory that different people respond very differently – as measured by their blood-sugar levels – after eating the same meal.

Food & You is a citizen science initiative, meaning volunteers from the general public play a direct role in the research. The upshot is that not only are scientific discoveries made more easily, but researchers also have an opportunity to build awareness about important scientific issues and share their expertise, results and enthusiasm.

Food & You is being conducted entirely online through a digital cohort of study participants. Unlike in conventional studies, participants don’t have to go through an interview or medical examination. The instructions for participants are provided electronically – by email, text message or on the Food & You website – and all materials they need are sent by mail. The data for the study are collected through the website and an app called MyFoodRepo, which was developed in association with Fondation Leenaards. The app draws on information in the Open Food Repo (formerly OpenFood) – an open-source repository of nutritional information on 38,000 bar-coded food products – so that users can easily track their food intake by taking pictures of their meals. Thanks to artificial intelligence and an image-recognition algorithm, the app can calculate the nutritional value of meals based on the products’ bar codes or photos. The Open Food Repo was developed in 2016 by EPFL’s Digital Epidemiology Laboratory and the Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Foundation, a Swiss philanthropy foundation that also sponsors Food & You.

The Food & You project will extend over several years; the scientists plan to enroll some 1,000 participants in Switzerland each year. Participants will be asked to record their daily food intake in the MyFoodRepo app for two weeks, and to use another app or a smartwatch to track their sleep and physical activity. They will also have to measure their blood-sugar levels using a tiny portable monitor (like the FreeStyle Libre). Once during the two-week period, participants must collect and send in a stool sample that will be analyzed to sequence the DNA of their gut flora. And they will need to complete online questionnaires to provide anthropometric, demographic and health information.

Achieving more accurate personalized nutrition

The EPFL scientists plan to use the data collected in the Food & You study to develop an algorithm that can predict individuals’ blood-sugar levels after every meal. “Our findings could have a major impact on the nutritional recommendations and personalized eating plans given to individuals. The results could also provide essential information on how our diet affects our health on a daily basis,” says Dr. Salathé. His lab is also conducting promising joint research with the pediatrics department of the Geneva University Hospitals, the endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism department of the CHUV, and the IUSMP – paving the way to potential breakthroughs in the prevention and treatment of many disorders.