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By Dr. Audrey Wall
With industrialization, we have lost touch with nature and what natural foods and plants offer us.
Thousands of years ago, our ancestors found that by fermenting or hydrolyzing milk into the likes of Kefir, they could recoup many of the added (but hidden) benefits in the milk. As a result, and because of the antimicrobial and antifungal molecules released as part of the fermentation process, Kefir held a much longer shelf life than milk.
Our ancestors have repeated this story in many different cultures and geographies, creating new health benefits from existing foods, like Kombucha from tea, Kimchi from cabbage and radish. Our ancestors didn’t know, or at least master, that by fermenting or hydrolyzing a plant or a food source in general, they were releasing and making available to us new molecules in the food that otherwise were lost by just eating natural food. Many of these molecules are called peptides, which were part of a protein in the original food and could not be available to us. But through hydrolysis or fermentation, they became accessible.
Of course, the ancient food techniques were not precise, and in many cases, they happened sporadically. Part of the reason is that they did not have today’s technologies, from molecular biology to genomics and proteomics. These hidden food peptides’ benefits were because of their synergistic or combined nature. However, our ancestors were onto something big, but the technologies were limited.
The era of AI is upon us
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the healthcare space. Pharmaceutical companies use sophisticated machine learning algorithms to accelerate drug discovery and development, reducing the time to market for new therapeutics. Within hospitals, AI is taking a leading role in diagnostics, allowing for X-rays to be analyzed in record time.
As AI becomes more entrenched in the healthcare space, researchers are identifying promising non-clinical applications with the potential to extend and improve lifespans. The most exciting example involves food.
AI has unleashed a new era in molecular food science. Using modern technology, it’s now possible to identify peptides – the language and currency of life – and other natural compounds that can help treat and prevent chronic diseases. Thanks to AI, Peptides are becoming the next health frontier and paving the way to natural drug discovery, offering a solution without side effects – a natural alternative without the ‘nasties.’ By adopting natural food based preventative approaches we can prevent over reliance on drugs.
The predictive power of AI
Put simply, peptides are chains of amino acids with a demonstrable health benefit. These can occur naturally or artificially manufactured in a lab environment. Peptides are already used in pharmaceutical products – particularly those to treat diabetes and other chronic pain diseases such as IBS multiple sclerosis – as well as cosmetics, with collagen peptides the most notable example.
Although peptides are abundant within nature, identifying those with beneficial properties has historically proven to be an expensive and time-consuming task, much like drug discovery. Complicating matters further, for a peptide to be effective, it must be able to survive the digestive process and eventually reach the part of the body it targets.
Fortunately, recent advances in AI – when paired with a multidisciplinary approach that includes genomics and deep learning – has the potential to rapidly accelerate the peptide discovery process. This trend promises to reduce the costs associated with peptide discovery and development, as well as the time-to-market for new peptide-enriched foods. With it follows a new, friction-free way of combating chronic illness.
The benefits of using AI for the discovery of bioactive ingredients, is that you can begin your journey by targeting a specific health need at the start of the process. The speed at which these discoveries can be made are unparalleled, PeptAIde, an AI-discovered anti-inflammatory ingredient from Nuritas, was brought from discovery to market in 18 months.
AI enables Healthspan>Lifespan
The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically changed consumer habits with respect to food. According to the International Food Information Council’s 2020 Food & Health Survey, 54 percent of US consumers care more about the healthfulness of their food than before. When looking exclusively at those aged over 50, that number soars to 63 percent. Health, more than taste and price, is the driving factor behind spending habits.We know we are living longer, but we want to live better for longer. Healthspan >Lifespan
As the healthcare sector reckons with the lingering effects of Covid-19, an aging population, and a proliferation of preventable chronic conditions, preventative measures will become even more important. Food, enriched with compounds empirically proven as beneficial, will undoubtedly prove to be a useful tool in this fight.
Until recently, researchers have struggled to identify these compounds. Additionally, many health-enriched products suffered from a dearth of credibility, with many “natural” products lacking the scientific rigor found in traditional healthcare products. The AI-driven approach addresses both problems, and in the process, promises to radically reshape how we treat and prevent life-changing (and potentially life-ending) chronic conditions.
Most importantly, with these compounds tightly woven into the food we eat, these health benefits can be obtained passively and without any side-effects. Whereas the efficacy of a drug is largely governed by a patient’s medication compliance (often referred to as medication adherence), this food-based approach works without any deliberate or explicit effort on behalf of the consumer because they are integrated into their already existing habits and daily behavior.
The road ahead
Technology is a crucial part of the modern food industry, and it provides food companies an ultimate platform to meet their consumer demands in an ever-changing environment. In the new conscious consumer era, we have seen a surge of alternative foods and health products entering the market, ranging from plant-based food and health products to alternative proteins and dairy options. There is so much more innovation to come — we’ve only just scratched the surface of the benefits these foods can provide.
The success and failure of technology will depend on its full integration and capability to perform a useful task. When it comes to nutrition and food, very little integration has been achieved to date and there is still a lot of room to improve, which is where AI will come into play. We still know very little about the molecular composition of our food, how those food components interact inside our bodies, and what actually happens to them once we eat them.. A lot of what we know is at a macro (food) level and not at the molecular level which is the major driver of success or failure of a particular food on an individual’s health.
AI is crucial here because it helps us decipher the hidden information in natural food sources and understand how it interacts with our bodies when we consume it. AI can help us connect specific food peptides with sleep, immunity or energy, for example. It will become less about marketing and more about measured tangible insights linked to true solutions that have been shown to be effective.
Dr. Audrey Wall is Scientific Lead at Nuritas.