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The unmapped chemical complexity of our diet

A Publisher Correction to this article was published on 21 January 2020


Our understanding of how diet affects health is limited to 150 key nutritional components that are tracked and catalogued by the United States Department of Agriculture and other national databases. Although 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. Using 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.

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Fig. 1: Untracked biochemicals and their health implications.
Fig. 2: Linking the diet to the genome and disease.

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This work was supported by NIH grant no. 1P01HL132825 and American Heart Association grant no. 151708, and NIH grant no. HG007690, HL119145, GM107618 and American Heart Association grant D700382 to J.L.; A.L.B. is also supported by ERC 810115-DYNASET. We thank D. Mozaffarian (Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy), W.C. Willett (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health), M. Sebek, F. Hooton, J. Cheng, I. do Valle, S. Milanlouei and P. Ruppert (Northeastern University) for help with data and useful discussions.

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A.L.B., G.M. and J.L. conceived the project and wrote the manuscript. G.M. performed the statistical analysis.

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Correspondence to Albert-László Barabási.

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Competing interests

A.L.B. is founder of Nomix and Foodome, and J.L. and A.L.B. are founders of Scipher Medicine, companies that explore the role of networks and food in health.

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Barabási, AL., Menichetti, G. & Loscalzo, J. The unmapped chemical complexity of our diet. Nat Food 1, 33–37 (2020).

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