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The chemist in the kitchen
Jeffrey M. Perkel, Ph.D.
BioTechniques, Vol. 54, No. 5, May 2013, pp. 243–247
Full Text (PDF)

“Food is fuel. You get picky about what you put in the tank, your engine is gonna die. Now shut up and eat your garbage.” —Django the rat, to his son Remy, in Pixar's Ratatouille

If you haven't seen Ratatouille, put down this journal, fire up iTunes, and watch it. I'll wait…

Back? Okay, obviously, Django is correct: Food is fuel. But it's not just fuel—or at least, it shouldn't be. In “The Book of Vice”, NPR host Peter Sagal describes a 26-course meal he and his wife had at famed Chicago eatery, Alinea. Of one course, he says, “We have been given little white wax bowls containing a teaspoon of broth,with a pin inserted through them holding up a dab of potato and truffle. When you remove the pin, the potato and truffle fall into the bowl. It is a food grenade.”

Another course was a “salad” comprising, among other things, a strip of heirloom tomato on top of which, “arranged in the manner of a police lineup in which the suspects are all tidbits, are a globe, a spiral, a cylinder, a lump, a sprig, a lump, and a leaf.” The globe, it turns out, was an inflated mozzarella balloon, just one of 20 different ingredients that went into the dish.

Clearly, the chefs at Alinea put a great deal of creativity into their food, leaving patrons to ask just what, exactly, did they just eat? It's a fair question, and not just at tony Michelin three-star restaurants. Because if the ingredient composition of a restaurant meal isn't always clear, on a molecular level it is downright opaque.

“We don't know many, many things in our food,” says Fulvio Mattivi, who heads the Department of Food Quality and Nutrition at the Fondazione Edmund Mach in San Michele All'adige, Italy. He should knowwith a background in industrial chemistry, Mattivi has nine mass spectrometers at his disposal, which he uses to probe the metabolite content of apples, strawberries, grapes, wines, and even biofluids. He is part of a small, but growing, community of researchers who use cutting-edge techniques to investigate the molecular content of food, its nutritional value, and its interaction with the human body. ‘


This emerging discipline has been named “foodomics”, a term that first popped up in the scientific literature around 2009. Since then, 28 foodomics articles have appeared in PubMed, most authored or co-authored by the researcher who first coined the term, Alejandro Cifuentes.

Cifuentes, professor of the Laboratory of Foodomics at the National Research Council of Spain in Madrid and author of a new textbook on the subject published in March, defines foodomics essentially as the application of genomic, transcriptomic, proteomic, and metabolomic techniques to food science and nutrition. Cifuentes says it is a term intended to alleviate the confusion created by earlier food related –omics disciplines such as nutrigenomics, nutrigenetics, nutritranscriptomics, and nutritional genomics, while also incorporating aspects of food safety, quality, and tracability.

Foodomics, Cifuentes writes, is “a new discipline that studies the food and nutrition domains through the application of advanced –omics technologies to improve the consumer's well-being, health, and confidence.” (1) That includes everything from profiling of food ingredients and identification of bioactive compounds to genome association studies and clinical investigations of the impact of diet on health.

An analytical chemist by training, Cifuentes’ lab includes such –omics tools as LC–, GC–, and capillary electrophoresis–based mass spectrometers, MALDI-TOF-TOF mass analyzers, two-dimensional gel electrophoresis, and RT-PCR. In one 2012 study, his team used Affymetrix GeneChip microarrays, Bruker time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MS), and Ingenuity pathway analysis software to study the impact of rosemary extract—or rather, the potentially therapeutic polyphenols contained therein—on normal and drug-resistant K562 human leukemia cells.

By overlaying the various datasets, Cifuentes’ team identified genetic and metabolic pathways (including the aminoacyl-tRNA biosynthesis and glutathione metabolic pathways) that could account for the plant extract's observed anti-proliferative effects.

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