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Can you shop with your DNA?

THE slogan “Shop with your DNA” is emblazoned above customers’ heads in a striking store in central London.
One wall is lined with rows of multicoloured cubicles that contain printer-like DNA testing devices.
I’m stood in DNANudge, which opened last week. It claims to help people make better food shopping choices based on their genes and lifestyle factors such
as physical activity, although the effectiveness of personalised diets based on genetic testing is far from proven.
DNA swabs are being analysed in the store. Customers rub the inside of their cheeks with a cotton bud.
This is then placed in a small device for analysis, which takes around an hour, testing for genes associated with caffeine metabolism and a predisposition for hypertension, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.
The information is turned into a personal profile that recommends limits of dietary components, including salt, fat and sugar. For £80, customers can then purchase a wristband for scanning barcodes on supermarket packets. It flashes red or green depending on whether a food item “fits” a person’s dietary intake profile.
For example, if someone is predisposed to having high blood pressure, the wristband may flash red for a choice that is high in salt.
A connected smartphone app would then suggest alternatives in the same food category.
DNA Nudge has a database of items found in most UK supermarkets make this function work.
I tested a shop assistant’s wristband on some cereal and it gave her the green light for chocolate chip Weetabix.
It feels strange to have such a simple piece of tech telling you what you should and shouldn’t eat – it seems a bit like having a traffic light for a diet coach.
“The best diet is the diet you don’t know you’re having,” says DNA Nudge CEO Chris Toumazou.
“Mindless overeating becomes mindless healthy overeating.”
But can your DNA help you do this? To date, there is little research to suggest that eating based on your genes conveys any significant benefits.
Nita Forouhi at the University of Cambridge co-authored a 2018 study involving 21,900 people that found that the link between diet and developing type 2 diabetes wasn’t affected by genetic risk factors for type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance or high BMI.
“This suggests the same dietary recommendations are relevant for type 2 diabetes regardless of differences in genetic predisposition,” she says.
Similarly, a year-long weight loss study by Christopher Gardner and his colleagues at Stanford University in California found no significant differences between
a healthy low-fat diet versus a lowcarbohydrate diet – even when individuals were assigned to a regime that matched their genetic predisposition to one or the other.
“Caution is needed when genetic tests are negative – does that give people a licence to eat whatever foods they like in whatever amounts? Not really,” says Forouhi.

Other studies have found that personalised nutrition may be more beneficial when it is based on characteristics such as age, sex, obesity status and ethnic group.
DNANudge acknowledges that DNA isn’t the whole story, and its wristband doubles as an activity tracker, flashing amber when a person is sedentary for too long.
“I would never recommend anything just based upon pure DNA,” says Toumazou. “More robust evidence is needed to support the efficacy and additional benefits of personalised nutrition beyond more traditional nutrition intervention approaches, such as those targeted towards eating more fruit and veg, or fewer foods that are high in free sugars,” says
a spokesperson for the British Nutrition Foundation, a charity focused on nutrition science. And what about genetic privacy? DNANudge doesn’t collect individuals’ genetic data, only storing an encrypted version of a person’s recommended dietary factors, says Toumazou.
The supermarket items customers scan will also be recorded in an anonymised way.
This will enable DNANudge to request that manufacturers and retailers stop selling regularly scanned products that are unsuitable for large groups of people, says Toumazou.
This could also be a source of valuable information about people’s everyday shopping choices. DNANudge has an ongoing research collaboration with UK-based supermarket chain Waitrose to study the effect of the technology on pre-diabetic customers.

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