The Periodic Table of Food will enable the global community to craft nourishing diets for children to improve their health and wellbeing, advance sustainability, and provide economic opportunities.
What is the Problem and Why Does it Matter?
Nutrition in the early years is fundamental to the wellbeing of every human on the planet, yet children across the globe face a ‘triple burden’ of malnutrition:
- Undernutrition: The lack of food and/or access to it, which makes children more vulnerable to disease and is linked to 45% of deaths among children under 5 (WHO, 2020). Undernourished children have diminished wellness and productivity throughout their lives, contributing up to a 12% reduction in a country’s GDP (WFP report, 2014).
- Overnutrition: The storage of too many calories. Globally, 38.3 million children under 5 are overweight or obese, leading to an increase in prevalence of type 2 diabetes (WHO, 2020).
- Poor nutrition: At least half of children under 5 suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies causing avoidable diseases such as blindness (Vitamin A deficiency) and impacting their growth and recovery (Zinc deficiency) (UNICEF, 2019).
Reducing global childhood malnutrition requires a systemic shift towards sustainable diets guided by robust evidence linking specific compounds in our foods to the optimal nutrition of the growing child. Currently our ability to create such diets, and act on new research in this area, is curtailed by a lack of information about the composition of food. The Periodic Table of Food Initiative seeks to fill this knowledge gap, to enable a diet revolution that can bring immediate positive global benefit to children, as well as long-term prospects for nutrition innovation.
“What children eat influences their physical and mental growth and development, as well as their future diet trajectories,” says Bruce German, a Professor of Food Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis, USA, whose research seeks to improve the diet of future generations by placing value on the nutritional quality of food. He believes that the characteristics of what constitutes a good diet can be modelled on a mother’s milk, since it caters for the ever-changing needs of the baby and adapts to provide the right components at the right time (J. Sci. Food Agric., 2012).
“The more we look at the composition of milk, the more it is apparent that the detailed components of each protein, fat, and carbohydrate are vital to the development of the child. For example, human milk contains specific oligosaccharides that the baby cannot digest, but instead feed a specific strain of bacteria in their gut, which helps to regulate the infant’s immune system and inhibit harmful bacteria, such as those that can cause diarrhea – a disease that accounts for 1 in 9 child deaths worldwide. Equating detailed components of food with simple protein, oils and sugars in our current diets is partly why we are suffering with malnutrition and diet-related diseases across the world,” German explains.
Proposed Solution: A Periodic Table of Food
Choosing the most appropriate diet for the health and development of children requires a database detailing the constitution of all foods. At most, only 150 of food’s biochemical components are currently quantified and tracked in databases, which represents only a tiny fraction of its component parts.
The Periodic Table of Food is a global effort to greatly expand our understanding of the biochemical components of our food. This initiative will utilize standardized kits and methods to identify and quantify the tens of thousands of compounds that are actually present in our food, culminating in the creation of a public database. It will bring immediate benefit to issues around childhood nutrition by revealing vital interconnections between food and health and enable groundbreaking research and innovation to promote nutritious diets for children. As sustainable foods and their vast biochemical diversity are cataloged and linked to aspects of child health, growth, and development, diets can be adapted and improved for all.
What is the Potential Impact?
Health and Nutrition:
- Addressing undernutrition: As nutritious diets are curated for the optimal growth and health of children at different developmental stages, both individuals and countries will benefit as wellness and productivity improve.
- Curbing overnutrition: The Periodic Table of Food will enable the creation of preventative and protective diets that are based on robust scientific evidence, to avoid the modern trend of increased diet-related cardiometabolic and autoimmune diseases.
- Providing more nutritious food: This data will help address dietary deficiencies and enable the personalization of nutritious diets that can be adapted as we learn about the roles of specific nutrients, the function of the gut microbiome, and a child’s needs and health.
- Promoting local diets: Categorizing the composition of foods around the globe will allow diets to be compiled using foods and cooking methods that are local, available, and sustainable. This is especially important in low- and middle-income countries, where access to food, diet diversity, and food sovereignty are under increased threat (World Dev., 2015).
- Increasing GDP: Eliminating undernutrition in Asia and Africa alone would increase GDP by 11% (2016-2030 WHO Global Strategy for the Health of Women and Children).
- Reducing costs: Without action, the annual worldwide obesity bill will reach $1.2 trillion in 2025 with 46% of that cost falling on the United States (World Obesity Federation, 2017).
- Catalyzing innovation: Precision diets enabled by the Periodic Table of Food offers opportunities for research and socially responsible investments to promote sustainable, nutritious diets that are demonstrated to improve health and development of children across the globe.
German is excited about the potential of this initiative. “The Periodic Table of Food will provide the means to curate diets, based on established research, that can, for instance, continue to replicate the beneficial effect of a mother’s milk as the infant grows. More broadly, as we learn how specific components in food contribute to the health and development of children, we can immediately apply this knowledge to guide the food that they eat, which will have a positive impact on global health and wellbeing.”