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Periodic Table of Food Lays the Ground for a Health Revolution

As food biomolecules are identified and better understood, doctors will be able to prevent or resolve illnesses.

Gabriel Velez begins the process of breaking down chontaduro fruit. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

Imagine a doctor’s visit in 2030.

After evaluating your health, your doctor makes diet recommendations far more specific than “eat your greens.” Is Butter lettuce better for your symptoms than Romaine? Should you add cherry tomatoes or Roma? Eat a Gaia apple or a Granny Smith?

Healthcare providers can offer this advice because they understand both food composition and food/body interactions down to the molecular level, thanks to the contributions of researchers and scientists.

Now imagine 2050.

Nutrition is deeply personalized and aimed at preventing illnesses or resolving them before symptoms appear. You scan individual food items to determine whether they will support your health needs.

Hungry? Simply upload the compounds most advised for you into a computer, along with what your taste desires. Then print out your nutritious meal.

Flashed forward, this is the future of healthcare, thanks to The Rockefeller Foundation Periodic Table of Food Initiative, says Dr. Andres Jaramillo, founding Director of the Research Institute in Omics Science (iOMICAS) at Javieriana University in Cali, Colombia, Director of the Multiscale Science in the Materials and Process Stimulation Center at the California Institute of Technology, and Lead Scientist in the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering division.

It’s his own North Star, the reason this ultra-busy and celebrated scientist is putting in the hours: to impact human health in such a sweeping manner.

“This is urgent and thrilling. It excites us,” Jaramilla said.

Dr. Andres Jaramillo, Director of the Research Institute in Omics Science, examines the varieties of beans his lab will analyze. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)
Dr. Andres Jaramillo, Director of the Research Institute in Omics Science, examines the varieties of beans his lab will analyze. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

Filling the Black Hole of Nutritional Knowledge

The visionary Periodic Table of Food Initiative (PTFI), developed and spearheaded by The Rockefeller Foundation, is at the starting gate.

Its near-term goal is to begin filling the black hole of nutritional knowledge by uncovering the biomolecular composition of foods through a global network of collaborators provided with standardized tools and training.

More than 26,000 biomolecules occur in plants, the overwhelming majority of which are unidentified and whose health effects are generally unknown.

Understanding these biomolecules has become even more important as climate change increases food insecurity and reduces the available nutrients in some crops.

Working with top research labs on each continent and partnering with a growing network of national lab hubs, PTFI aims to translate food science for all regional landscapes and traditional diets.

The longer-term goal? To create an equity-centered evidence-based system to prevent or treat diet-triggered diseases.

Gabriel Velez, specialist in metabolomics, begins the process of analyzing the biomolecules of the chontaduro fruit.

  • A banner at the iOMICAS lab illustrates the PTFI process (Courtesy of iOMICAS)
    A banner at the iOMICAS lab illustrates the PTFI process. (Courtesy of iOMICAS)

Statistics to Remember


    biomolecules occur in plants, and most are unidentified


    will be analyzed initially


    of diseases are correlated to lifestyle, including diet, the World Health Organization notes

Expanding the Food Dictionary

“We know so much about the crevices and composition of the Moon and Mars, but we don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the composition of the food we eat,” said Dr. Maya Rajasekharan, Managing Director, Africa, for the Alliance Bioversity & International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Palmira, Colombia.

“We don’t understand climate change’s impact on that composition, or how certain foods interact with a person’s particular gut microbiome,” she said. “Our food dictionary is very limited at the moment.”

Dr. Joe Tohme, CIAT’s General Director, is quick to applaud The Rockefeller Foundation for providing seed funding for this transformative work while recognizing that the full impact may take years to realize.

“The Rockefeller Foundation has a proven track record of supporting research ecosystems that allow for long-term impact,” he said.

  • Completing this baseline PTFI work could set the stage for revolutionary advances in health and nutrition, with special emphasis in the Global South.
    Joe Tohme
    General Director, CIAT

The Rockefeller Foundation has helped shape the effort and is providing funding through a grant to the Alliance and the American Heart Association (AHA). The AHA involvement makes the eventual health goals explicit.

“We increasingly understand that diet-related chronic disease is driven by food intake patterns based on biomolecular composition, rather than deficiency of a single nutrient,” said Selena Ahmed, PTFI’s Global Director, American Heart Association. “The PTFI is uncovering the black box of food and health linkages. This matches the American Heart Association’s goals to lead robust research on food while providing resources to improve healthcare in all communities.”

  • Fresh chontaduro fruit from the farmer's market is ready for molecular analysis in a lab in Cali, Colombia as part of PTFI (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)
    Fresh chontaduro fruit from the farmer's market is ready for molecular analysis in a lab in Cali, Colombia as part of PTFI. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

The Importance of Global Standardization

Though previous work has been done to create limited food composition databases, until now, a smaller selection of food has been analyzed, the geographical scope is limited, and standardized procedures have not been implemented.

How critical is standardization?

This anecdote answers that question: in 2021, as part of laying the groundwork for PTFI, Verso Biosciences, with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, took an apple from the grocery store and sent slices to various labs around the world to compare analyses.

The results were so diverse that you wouldn’t have even guessed the labs were analyzing the same apple.

Now to be part of the project, a lab must first analyze a food using the Verso standards, and achieve a perfect or near-perfect result.

  • With this initiative, we aren’t just cataloging food components; we are leveraging these insights to tackle the climate crisis. The vast knowledge gained from PTFI will enhance human and planetary health, fostering a sustainable future for all.
    Dr. John de la Parra
    Director, Food Initiative
    The Rockefeller Foundation

Collaborative Process to Arrive at the Starting Point

A list of the initial 1,650 foods to be analyzed was drawn up through a collaborative global process looking for foods important from both a nutritional and a cultural perspective. Eventually researchers want to map all biomolecules in the food supply.

Chontaduro fruit in the process of breakdown in the iOMICAS lab in Colombia. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

Jaramillo’s lab has begun analytical work on 26 to 30 fruits and 45 to 50 bean varieties.

“We started looking at local fruits, like the chontadura,” he said, referring to a fruit with the consistency of sweet potato that grows from a species of palm native to the region. In Costa Rica, it’s called pejibaye; pigibaio in Panama; pijuayo in Peru and pupunha in Brazil.

“We decided to examine separately the pulp, the seed, and the skin, because we believe each will have different characteristics.”

The process includes a series of steps, including flash freezing, pulverizing, dissolving, filtering, and ionizing the food samples into their molecular constituents.

  • Gabriel Velez, specialist in metabolomics, analyzes the biomolecules of chontaduro (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)
    Gabriel Velez, specialist in metabolomics, analyzes the biomolecules of chontaduro. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

Despite the number of steps, thanks to automated data processing tools and the technical specialists, this is the relatively easy part compared to the painstaking work to selectively identify and study molecular bio-activity, or the role of individual molecules when consumed in foods.

Food, like people, is altered by its environment. In time, researchers anticipating being able to analyze the impact on food composition – and then on human health – of climatic conditions, chemical inputs, methods of processing and storing, and more. Additional fields of information to be collected will include the food’s seasonality and role in diet.

The data will be compiled on an open-access platform. Verso will help create visualizations of the data and it will also live on the AHA’s Precision Medicine Platform.

“The vision and ambition of this project cannot be underestimated,” Tohme said. “But it is the level of ambition needed to achieve a breakthrough that could eventually impact everyone.”

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