Hidden nutrition: We don't know what makes up 99 per cent of our food

Hidden nutrition(n(y)o͞oˈtriSH(ə)n): We don’t know what makes up 99 per cent of our food

We know next to nothing about the vast majority of compounds(ˈkämˌpound) in our diet. Now researchers are finding ways to study this “nutritional dark matter” – and what it could mean for our health.

By Graham Lawton

TODAY I searched my kitchen cupboards for dark matter, and found it in a packet of Korean(kəˈrēən) instant noodles. The food label ran to 38 ingredients(inˈɡrēdēənt), many of them additives(ˈadədiv). But it also listed some real foods, including soy(soi), chilli(ˈCHilē), sesame(ˈsesəmē), shrimp(SHrimp), cabbage(ˈkabij), seaweed(ˈsēˌwēd), mushroom, anchovy(ˈanˌCHōvē) and cuttlefish(ˈkədlˌfiSH). And also the one I was looking for, garlic(ˈɡärlik).

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that garlic contains actual dark matter, the 85 per cent or so of material in the universe that physicists(ˈfizəsəst) say is there but cannot observe directly. But it does contain(kənˈtān) what has been called “nutritional dark matter”: the thousands and thousands of compounds that are in food but which, until recently, were totally unknown, and which may be affecting our health. Given that eating is one of the big human universals, that’s a mind-boggling(ˈbäɡəl) oversight.

“Our understanding of how diet affects health is limited to 150 key nutritional components(kəmˈpōnənt),” says Albert-László Barabási at Harvard Medical School, who coined the term nutritional dark matter. “But these represent only a small fraction of the biochemicals(ˈˌbīōˈkeməkəl) present in our food.” It is time, he says, for nutritionists(n(y)o͞oˈtriSH(ə)nəst) to go dark-matter hunting, to massively expand our knowledge of what is on our plate(plāt) and its impact on us.