The primary role of food is to comply with the nutritional needs of an individual. Today, we know that not only the amount of food, but also its nutritional quality make up for a healthy food intake. Food components are commonly divided in macronutrients and micronutrients.
Macronutrients, which comprise proteins, carbohydrates and fats, are compounds needed in high amounts for the growth and general good functioning of the organism. Their main role is to function as energy and basic material source for the organism.
Needed in more subtle and even sometimes trace amounts, micronutrients are essential for orchestrating and regulating a wide range of biological processes. They include:
• vitamins : A,B1,B2,B3,B5,B6,B8,B9,B12,C,D,E,K
• major minerals: calcium, magnesium, chlorine, phosphorus, potassium and sodium
• oligo-elements (trace minerals): iron, copper, zinc, iodine, manganese, chromium, cobalt, selenium
• phyto-elements :
• essential amino acids such as tryptophane, leucine, phenylalanine
• essential fatty acids such as omega 3 and omega 6 unsaturated fats
Micronutrients are called essential because our body cannot synthesize them, or as least not in sufficient amounts, and must acquire them daily via food intake.
The latest studies in nutritional genomics are progressively revealing the complex picture of the role of micronutrients, and more importantly, of micronutrients combinations, in the regulation of genes involved in multiple metabolic processes linked to diseases such as cancer (1). As everyone has his own unique genetic material, this points out the need for a more individualized nutritional approach in disease prevention as well as treatment.
A large amount of published scientific studies have highlighted the harmful consequences of micronutrient deficiencies, which all fall under the term of malnutrition. They can be at the source of a wide range of deregulations spreading from mild digestive, sleeping or humour symptoms, to more severe metabolic diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis and cardiovascular diseases. When combined with undernourishment, as it is often the case in numerous developing countries, deficiencies have disastrous effects on child development, cognitive capacities and resistance to infectious agents. Surprisingly, food abundance in Western developed countries is not exempt of micronutrient deficiencies, with a special contemporary highlight on iodine, folic acid, calcium and vitamin D.
The best way of avoiding or dealing with micronutrients deficiencies is to consume healthy and diversified food. However this might not always be possible due to restricted food availability, insufficient economical means or specific food intolerances. Therefore, without substituting itself to healthy food consumption, micronutrients supplementation is a crucial way to improve daily life and health status of certain populations. Micronutrients supplementation can be achieved either through the development of functional foods or nutraceuticals.
In Europe, national recommendations for micronutrient requirements vary widely. In an attempt of harmonisation, the European Commission has founded EURRECA, a Network of Excellence developing methodologies to standardise the process of setting micronutrient recommendations. Its members are scientists, representatives of nutrient requirement setting bodies, consumer organisations, small & medium-sized enterprises and wider stakeholders from across Europe.
As individual needs for any micronutrient might depends on a variety of factors such as age, gender, genotype, physical activity, and general health status, these requirements may thus vary both within and between individuals. Taking this into account, EURRECA’s research spans several population groups such as children and adolescents, pregnant and lactating women, elderly, and people with low income.
1. Ferguson, L.R. & Schlothauer, R.C. The potential role of nutritional genomics tools in validating high health foods for cancer control: broccoli as example. Mol Nutr Food Res 56, 126-146 (2012).