My first response to an Imperial College London news article entitled “Researcher and chef make ‘hyperfoods’ cookbook with disease-fighting ingredients” was not one of excitement, or even mild intrigue. It was with the jaded ennui of someone who has watched too many big brands profit from nutritional pseudoscience, that I forced myself to plough on.
But I was wrong. Where in the past the science underpinning media headlines around disease-fighting “superfoods” has been scant at best, this piece had more science than I knew what to do with. There was computer science, biophysics, analytical chemistry, artificial intelligence. There was mass spectrometry, practical surgery, epidemiology and gastronomy.
The Hyperfoods project is spearheaded by Dr Kirill Veselkov, a professor of computational medicine at Imperial College London, and Jozef Youssef, an experimental chef whose design studio Kitchen Theory collaborates with scientists and psychologists to investigate a wide range of food topics.
Though the research has been fiendishly complex, the premise of Hyperfoods is simple: to identify those foods which are particularly rich in cancer-beating molecules – polyphenols, flavonoids, terpenoids, botanical polysaccharides, to name a few – and to map them in such a way that medics, nutritionists and (to some extent) you and I can apply to our everyday lives.
One key distinction from “superfoods” – or even just straight-up healthy foods – is that these are foods specifically identified as containing biologically active molecules that might work similarly to oncological drugs; “it’s not about the classical nutritional components – minerals, vitamins, proteins etc. People are generally educated about those,” says Youssef. It’s about diversity and concentrations of certain bioactive components, and their potential to prevent cancer: what Veselkov calls “the dark matter of nutrition”.
The reason this area has been so under-researched historically is that understanding how these molecules work and interact with each other demands data capture and analysis on a scale far beyond the capacity of any pre-existing nutritional database. “It is only the development of modern AI and analytical technologies that has allowed us to look at the interactions of these molecules and of our gut microflora,” he continues, “and of course, the convergence of different disciplines.”
As well as Veselkov, Youssef and all the other surgeons and biologists mentioned, the scientific discoveries were powered by Vodafone Foundation’s DreamLab app, which pairs AI technologies, mobile supercomputing and big data to analyse billions of combinations of existing drugs and food-based molecules.
As computer scientist Prof Michael Bronstein, who was also involved into the research, explains, their work is “the first attempt to apply network-based AI to simulate the health effects of biologically active molecules in foods”.
If this all sounds very sombre and clinical, well – it is, says Youssef. “If it sounds like a lot of science going into it, that’s because there is a lot of science going into it.” Born out of a pressing global need to reconnect diet and nutrition with disease prevention – up to 30 to 40 per cent of all cancers can be prevented by dietary and lifestyle modifications alone, according to recent data – the success of the Hyperfoods project depends on meticulous, data-lead research.
“The connection between food and health has ended up feeling quite esoteric,” Youssef goes on. “But for the Ancient Greeks, any civilisation that didn’t consider food as medicine they considered as ignorant.”
This is not to entirely discount our intuition around food and drink: “People do know there is a relationship between food and their body and mind, whether it’s hedonism or comfort or indulgence at Christmas,” he smiles, “but globally we need to be assessing what we eat in a much more structured way. We’re at crisis point. We need science to guide us back to the right path.”
Reading the literature, you could be forgiven for expecting Hyperfood’s recipes to be at best expensive, with rare, random ingredients; and at the worst, boring. Not so. Opening the ebook in my browser (free to download at kitchen-theory.com), I am confronted by a series of artfully shot, genuinely enticing dishes; a vibrant, steaming dill and lemon soup and a creamy semifreddo dusted with dark chocolate and lime zest. The recipes are not only based on fruit and vegetables you can find in your local supermarket, but contain a comforting array of foods that aren’t always famed for their health benefits: chocolate, pasta, meat, sugar – even alcohol.
“Hyperfoods are plant foods because half of small molecules currently approved for anticancer therapies are derived from natural products,” says Veselkov. Yet those plants which contain the highest concentrations of cancer-beating molecules are far from expensive.
“Whereas superfoods have been associated with extraordinary foods like goji berries and wheatgrass, we found these molecules in everyday foods like carrots, celery, oranges, grapes, coriander, cabbage, tomatoes and dill.”
Youssef’s primary goal was to make his recipes accessible: “We aren’t creating a fad diet and pushing people to focus on a set number of foods. We want people to look at food as a functional part of their health and wellbeing, without sacrificing all the things they enjoy in life.”
While not a license to knock back the cocktails and get your spoon in a jar of Sun-Pat, the inclusion of the spice cranberry cocktail and the chicken and carrot skewers with satay sauce is designed to “tell you that even these things can incorporate hyperfoods,” says Youssef.
That Youssef loves food for its own sake, as well as its molecules, is obvious from his recipes. But for me, the greatest sign that this project understands the spirit as well as the science of food is the manner in which it was conceived.
“It was two years ago, at a conference in Tuscany,” Veselkov smiles, “and Jozef and I got chatting about the intersection between computer science and food over the dinner and a bottle of good wine.”
Add to your shopping list
The below is a list of the most “hyper” hyperfoods; that is, those foods boasting the highest diversity of molecules with anticancer properties.
There are a number of ways in which these molecules could contribute to the prevention or co-treatment of various cancers. It does mean you should look out for these foods; it does not mean you should mainline tea and grate carrot on everything. As ever, the wider the range of plants you include in your diet the better.
- Wild celery
- Sweet orange
- Soy bean
- Broad bean