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Metabolomics in nutrition research

Anna Winkvist and Helen Lindqvist are two nutrition researchers at the Sahlgrenska Academy who work closely with the NMR Centre. They make use of metabolomics in nutrition research so they can better determine what people have eaten. With the aid of NMR spectroscopy, they can find various dietary markers in blood or urine.

“It is an extremely exciting technology for being able to objectively determine what people have eaten,” says Winkvist, a professor of nutrition.

OUR EATING HABITS traditionally have been surveyed by answering questions about what we have eaten. But such questioning always produces source errors. People forget what they have eaten, have difficulty estimating what size portions they have eaten and lie about their eating habits. In a method study that has just been carried out, a number of people ate breakfast in a food laboratory. One group was given a more protein-rich, British breakfast with ham, eggs and white beans, while the other group ate a carbohydrate-based Scandinavian breakfast with cereal and sandwiches. Subsequently they provided blood and urine samples, which were analysed at the NMR Centre.

Was it possible to distinguish between the different groups? Yes, it was, according to Lindqvist, a bioscience senior lecturer.

“However, we saw the biggest differences between those who chose to drink coffee and those who chose tea, which we had not anticipated initially.”

In this case the study was about diet choices that could be traced the same day in blood and urine, whereas other projects had to do with the effect of different dietary habits over a longer period. In another project, for example, the difference between omnivores, vegetarians and vegans was studied.

PREVIOUS METHODS THAT were used could only study one biomarker at a time. Analyses have been expensive and time-consuming. NMR spectroscopy has opened new opportunities for the research field. “Foods are complex and contain lots of different materials that can exert an influence in many different directions. The advantage of metabolomics is that we can include a great many materials at once,” Lindqvist says.

But while NMR spectroscopy makes it possible to generate a great deal of information, it also demands a lot of those who are to analyse all the data. Concurrently with the development of NMR technology during the past decade, bioinformatics also has made major strides. Being able to manage great quantities of data is becoming an important part of research. “We have had very good collaboration with the NMR Centre, and the development of our research has gone hand in hand with expansion of the centre,” Winkvist says.

THE NEXT STEP WILL BE using biomarkers to predict how well a certain type of treatment works for an individual patient. In this case it involves monitoring what effect a change in diet could have on an individual, which in turn should be able to increase the person’s motivation to alter dietary habits.

“Changing dietary habits is hard,” says Lindqvist. “It would help motivate us to change our habits if we knew ahead of time that a dietary change is likely to have a major impact.”

Text and photo: Camilla Persson

The interview is an excerpt from a longer article on the NMR centre published in Science Faculty Magazine Nr 1 2016.