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Experimental Biology 2004: translating the genome, Washington DC, USA, 17-21 April.

Experimental Biology is the annual meeting of professional research scientists from some 31 societies and associations, including the American Society for Nutritional Sciences and the American Society for Clinical Nutrition. The Nutrition Program ran a wide range of themes focusing mostly on food and nutrients, diet and disease and population health. With a concurrent session format one had to be selective, so only a sample of what was on offer is reviewed here.

On the first morning ILSI North America hosted a functional foods conference with a focus on obesity. The first two speakers addressed mechanistic processes. Dr Moran from Johns Hopkins University critically reviewed research to date on the control of food intake by gut hormones, notably CCK, ghrelin and PYY (3-36). Problems with replicating research findings and confirming effects across species indicated the need for more research. Using the example of the omega-3 fatty acid EPA, Dr Halperin from Harvard argued that bioactive food components can show how gene action can occur at a number of levels and thus how food may have an impact on a number of diseases. At the human intervention level, Dr Foster from the University of Pennsylvania reviewed recent studies on low carbohydrate diets, noting the observed short-term differences (three months) that seem to be lost after 12 months when compared to control interventions. He noted that attention to both efficacy and effectiveness was important in evaluating dietary approaches to weight loss. Newly published research on dietary approaches attending to levels of calcium and dairy products in the diet was reviewed by Dr Teegarden from Purdue University, leading to new propositions for research into potential effects of calcium on energy metabolism. These displays of knowledge were good examples of why we need to continue to invest in nutrition science, the latter argued in the ASNS Presidential lecture given by John H Marburger III, science adviser to the President. With nutrition seen as the ultimate interdisciplinary health science, there was a need to keep doing the science so that we might be more certain of undertaking the right strategies in this domain.

A session on the bioactivity of functional foods, presented by university research centres from Illinois, Missouri and Indiana (Purdue) discussed the relative effects of bioactive components and whole foods and the challenges for research. These included the problems associated with isolating and studying these components, comparing activity in the whole foods versus the extraction, and tracking the metabolic fate of bioactive compounds. The role of environmental stress in producing bioactive compounds was of considerable interest, and there were implications for the development of cell cultures for the study of their effects, particularly in cancer prevention. The potential for high selenium broccoli grown in enriched soils was considered, although the bioavailability of Se would be lower than from meat or wheat selenoproteins. The variable results of studies with soy protein were discussed in the light of possible differences in ability to produce equol. The array of studies in this area was most interesting, and it finished with information on a web-based education program which can be found on the Purdue web site.

In a session on modifying the food environment. Drewnowski and Rolls argued for closer attention to portion sizes and energy density in controlling energy intake. They referred to a number of their respective recent publications in this regard, and in Drewnowski's case one where eating more fruits and vegetables could be seen to cost more (using a Cal/gm vs $/Cal comparison). In asking 'what can government and industry do?' Eileen Kennedy referred to controversies such as the strength of the evidence to act (including issues such as basic nutrition science vs its applications), the 'sugar wars' (and the problems with definitions of free sugars), partnerships between public and private sectors, investments in agricultural research and how to deal with new nutrition and lifestyle realities. She argued for transnational research that was comprehensive, multifaceted and accepted the adage that there are 'no magic bullets'.

Finally, a session on nutrient-disease relationships focusing on the proposed FDA-qualified health claims and potential examples involving selenium and vitamin E, produced substantial discussion on evidence-based systems. Joanne Lupton from Texas A & M University outlined a number of key points. There is a whole science behind evaluating science, and it is linked to the design of better studies. This included characterising the food or substance, providing food intake data, identifying how the intervention affected the whole diet and clarification on whether there was a substitution in, or addition to, the diet. Study end points needed to be clearly defined, statistics should be adequate (avoiding multiple t-tests and correcting for confounders), and study strength considered (including type, relevance, benefits and consistency). In the end, clear and transparent demonstration studies, evidence tables and agreement from trained scientists was required.

There were many more sessions relevant to nutrition and dietetics in the program. The quality was excellent and a number are likely to appear in nutrition journals in due course. Author searches on key speakers are also recommended.

Professor Linda Tapsell PhD APD

Director, Smart Foods Centre/National Centre of Excellence in Functional Foods

University of Wollongong
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Title Annotation:Conference Report
Author:Tapsell, Linda
Publication:Nutrition & Dietetics: The Journal of the Dietitians Association of Australia
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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