From medical nutrition to edible vaccines: to what extent can food help medicine?


Knowing what is the “ideal diet” to achieve health through our daily diets is not enough. Food is also a valuable resource to help prevent and fight some diseases, and in the Western world medical applications for food – known as “medical nutrition” – are developing rapidly. Halfway between pharmacology and the food industry, these products might soon coexist with other, much more “natural” ones… with an extra twist.


As the link between nutrition and health is increasingly explored and documented, new solutions keep emerging to fight the wide range of challenges the world is facing in terms of public health. Welcome to the future.

Nutrition and health have always been intrinsically linked, and mankind has known this for a long time. Evidence has been discovered that in 5000 B.C., plants were used for medicinal purposes in China. All the great civilizations of Asia Minor, Central Europe and the Near East consumed fermented milk products, the ancestors of our yoghourts, to strengthen their bones. Over the course of the 20th century, with the progress of both medicine and the agro-industry, the developed world has been able to feed more and more people. This increase has been quantitative as well as qualitative. Assessing the nutritional and health virtues of what we eat has become more and more precise, to the point where we actually know what is the “ideal diet” for leading a long and healthy life (see our article

Eating responsibly and healthily: an unsolvable equation?

from the 16th of August: But nutrition can do more than “just” make us healthy. It has also long been used as a medicinal aide to help fight or prevent diseases, whether epidemic or non-communicable. Although it is not a substitute for actual medicine, food has a major role to play in this field, especially given the new challenges that the world faces. And it may be used one day for health purposes in ways even the most imaginative sci-fi film could never imagine.


The development of medical nutrition

In terms of public health, two main trends can be identified. In the Western world, the population continues to age, leading to more age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. We do live longer, but in order to make these “additional” years healthier, medical expenses have skyrocketed over the past century. In addition, our lifestyle is responsible for spreading of non-communicable diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart diseases, many sorts of cancers, asthma, allergies, etc. On the other hand, under-nutrition and malnutrition are still major challenges faced by millions of children every day, affecting their health and development, both in the developed and developing worlds. In this dual context, it comes as no surprise that health institutions, such as pharmaceutical laboratories, as well as food giants have chosen to invest in the field of what is known as “medical nutrition”. The products that they develop can help compensate for nutritional deficiencies, prevent the apparition of some diseases, support the treatment of others, offer an alternative in the case of food intolerances, and more…thus reducing a range of public health costs. For instance, Danone has developed a variety of products, ranging from powdered milk for children who are allergic to cow’s milk to milky drinks that provide the full range of recommended nutritional requirements of people who lose their appetite, to a product, not yet on the market that is designed to support synapse formation in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. “Medical nutrition” products, even though they benefit from the experience of traditional food producers and thus their knowledge of taste and texture, are designed to be used and prescribed by healthcare professionals. Therefore, they need to be scientifically tested and verified before they are sold in pharmacies, hospitals and through doctors. As William Green, head of communication for the Medical Nutrition division at Danone, puts it: it is essential to

prove the benefits of our products on health. To achieve that, the group works with doctors that are specialists of the field targeted by each product, and also with universities.

Medical nutrition is now a market worth 8 billion dollars, and it is expanding at a rate of 10% every year. But 60% of it is still concentrated in the United States and Europe. Emerging and developing countries should soon see a broader range of options as we improve our knowledge of both their public health needs and their nutritional tastes and habits.


What the future holds in store

Medical nutrition as we now know it could be considered as a state-of-the-art approach to the links between health and food. In a way, it is the zenith of a history that started when mankind realized that some natural products had curative or preventive effects: garlic against asthma, honey to heal a wound faster, cranberry to fight variety of health problems, from mere discomforts to serious diseases. But the future has way of going whole hog. New ideas and products could certainly blossom over the next few years to fight problems on a global scale.

In North America, for instance, research has been carried out for a few years now to create “edible vaccines”: genetically modified vegetables or fruits that contain vaccine proteins. People who eat them would boost their immune systems, protecting them against the infection the vegetable has been designed to fight. In Canada, researchers have incorporated a human gene into corn, making the corn produce antibodies designed to kill cancerous cells and thus help fight some types of cancers. At Texas A&M University (Houston, Texas), another group of researchers is working on “vaccine bananas” that could help fight plagues that kill fifteen millions of children every year in third-world countries: cholera, deadly types of diarrhoea, hepatitis B, etc. Bananas are good candidates because children like to eat them and they grow easily, especially in the countries where these vaccines are desperately needed. In fact, advocates of this solution argue that edible vaccines would be much cheaper, could be easily preserved in the natural packaging of the fruit, and would be safer and more efficient than traditional vaccines. Charles Arntzen (Arizona State University), a pioneer in the field, has made it his life’s struggle to provide protection against infectious diseases to the poorest populations. . He believes that using traditional technology to vaccinate everyone is simply impossible.

So I’m going to spend the next five years trying to make it so easy that anybody can do it

- thanks to edible vaccines.

Of course, these are not going to appear overnight. We are only beginning the research process, and even if it succeeds, there will be many problems left to be resolved. For instance, if the vaccine is too powerful, it will have the opposite effect and the disease will develop tolerance to it. Safety control is also a major issue. And then there are, of course, all the fears linked to genetically modified organisms in general. In the long run, what could these genes do to children’s bodies? Time will tell if these risks can be eradicated or not. In the meantime, scientists keep working and discovering new mechanisms.

As far as prevention is concerned, it has thus been scientifically established that the answer to a variety of incommunicable diseases could simply be found… in our gut. As we explained in a previous article (INSERER REFERENCE), the intestinal microbiota that we all shelter has a strong importance on some body functions, and is closely linked to our metabolism and immune system. Getting to know these gut microbes better thus “opens up new horizons that point towards the possible emergence in the future of preventive and personalised diets” to fight major chronic diseases. For instance, “the experts estimate that our genetic heritage influences our susceptibility to obesity at a level of 30%, while environmental factors such as dietary intake at the start of life may have a more preponderant effect”: modifying the intestinal microbiota in the first two years of life would then be key to

positively interfere with the immune system equilibrium as well as the metabolic “programming” of the individual.

Also, as our knowledge of intestinal microbiota gets more accurate and comprehensive, we will soon be able to identify predisposition to certain diseases and fight them more efficiently.

It is hard to predict what breakthroughs medical nutrition will achieve, what wonders of the human body will be discovered and what unbelievable ideas will come to life in labs all over the world in the decades to come. But the least we can say is that mankind is certainly not going to stop exploring the ties between food and health. And maybe one day it will help eradicate epidemic diseases and effectively prevent and cure non-communicable ones?