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19 July 2013

Søren Balling Engelsen: how molecules pinpoint deficient diets

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Scientists are now attempting to address the dietary habits of people with inadequate nutrition.

Until now, we have had very little understanding of the extent of malnutrition in Europe, especially in populations at risk of poverty. Now, an EU-funded project called CHANCE, aims to address the dietary habits in people with inadequate nutrition. One of the tools is the so-called nutri-metabonomics technique, which consist of using a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer to identify molecules in urine that are the result of the metabolism of different types of food. Søren Balling Engelsen, a researcher at the department of food science at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and one of the project partners responsible for nutri-metabonomics, tells about the challenges associated with this approach.

How can you find out about nutrition by analysing people’s urine?
We use a technology called metabonomics, the detection of compounds in urine that result from the metabolism of food components, such as proteins. Up to now, metabonomics was primarily applied in pharmacology and toxicology. The reason for using nutri-metabonomics in the project is to investigate if there is statistical evidence of differences in the presence of chemical compounds resulting from the metabolism of food components, among people at risk of poverty. This is made possible as we can now identify what people eat by analysing NMR spectra, looking for biomarkers in their urine.

Is this still very much research in progress?
We are still in the first round. We have just finishing measuring NMR spectra obtained from the urine samples and they are very complex. We are now correlating these data with the nutritional food frequency questionnaires and a recall of food eaten over the previous 24 hours. We are trying to standardise the way to analyse the urine. There are a number of confounding factors: we find differences in ethnicity, cohabitation, and gender. 

So the data differ from country to country?
We have analysed urine samples from cohorts from all over Europe, and we see differences. The question is whether these differences relate more to confounding factors than to the financial status of the cohort members. For example, a large number of our people in the UK cohort are of Pakistani origin and they do have a different metabolism.

What are you looking for in your analysis?
We have a very untargeted approach, where we try to ’fingerprint’ people and see if they can be grouped in clusters or classes of people with different metabolisms. Our approach is quite new, and we are still learning a lot. We are looking at minor changes, minor perturbations, and our task is more difficult than in toxicology, for example, where you have drastic changes in metabolism.

Will this allow you to identify groups that have inadequate diets, such as people at risk of poverty?
There are some hypotheses about this. But, actually, we are not sure that people at risk of poverty are eating poor quality food. I am sure you can find rich people who are eating poor quality food. We know that older people are changing their dietary habits. But we do not as yet know whether this is reflected in their metabolism. We will know more when we have completed the correlation of the NMR data with our questionnaires and biometric data.

Could you outline the aim of the project beyond than just measuring the reflection of inadequate food in people’s metabolism?
The project is developing cheap, nutritional foods for people with low incomes. We have a number of food companies involved in the project, and they are keen to develop these kinds of foods. provides its content to all media free of charge. We would appreciate if you could acknowledge as the source of the content.