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I took a DNA test from a Milwaukee startup and it told me to eat elk and passion fruit

Nancy Stohs, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published 9:54 a.m. CT Aug. 14, 2018 | Updated 3:23 p.m. CT Aug. 17, 2018

Our DNA determines many things. Our eye color. The nature of our internal clock. How impulsive or thrill-seeking we are. The likelihood of developing various diseases.

And, yes, what we should and shouldn’t eat.

Sure, you can pick a standard healthy diet — Mediterranean, perhaps? — and follow that, but for the best health outcome, eating for your genes is the way to go.

Based on my DNA, for instance, I should be chomping daily on raspberries and turnip greens. Elk should be a meat of choice. Nutritional yeast, quinoa, chia seeds, passion fruit, whole-grain breads, lentils and fresh mussels should all be in my regular mealtime rotation.

I should go easy on saturated fats while increasing my intake of vitamins A and B12, but I don’t have to worry so much about overdoing the carbs.

And I am not lactose-intolerant.

I didn’t say “Hey, Siri,” or summon Alexa to look up my DNA and tell me these things. I signed up for a comprehensive nutritional analysis through a local startup called GenoPalate.

GenoPalate is the brainchild of molecular biologist Sherry Zhang. A native of China, she came to the U.S. in 2001 to pursue her doctorate at Marquette University. She then continued her career at the Medical College of Wisconsin, where she taught and did genomic research in obesity and metabolic health until January of this year. At that time, she resigned from her position as assistant professor of medicine (in endocrinology, metabolism and clinical nutrition) to devote herself full time to her new business. 

Besides Zhang, who is CEO, the staff of GenoPalate — with offices on N. Prospect Ave. — now numbers 16 and includes two other senior scientists with PhDs and three registered dietitians.

Sit down with her and a few other team members, and you sense a genuine enthusiasm for their mission, which they say is to help people align their eating habits with their unique DNA profile.

Zhang stressed that they aren’t there to provide health care but rather “informed decision-making.”

“The goal is that people will take the recommendations and that it will help them build a lifestyle shift,” said Neil Giugno, the company’s COO. “We won’t choose an established diet plan and say follow this. We wanted to get away from the word ‘diet.’ “

Ways to have your genes mapped

Customers can sign up in two ways: If starting from scratch, they can order a saliva kit from GenoPalate, which will analyze their DNA and identify their nutritional markers. That option costs $199.
Or, if they’ve already had their DNA analyzed through a site like 23andme or, they can send over their data and pay $99 for just the nutritional analysis. (Two-thirds of their clients so far have fallen into this camp.)

If your DNA is already done, you can expect a report in two to four weeks. Otherwise, from the time GenoPalate sends out your kit, your wait will be four to six weeks.

The dietary recommendations GenoPalate then shares are based on more than 100 known nutrition biomarkers. These are variants (or mutations) within genes that determine how our bodies interact with various foods. The biomarkers Zhang’s team has chosen to use are based on large-scale human correlation studies as well as scientific evidence about the genes themselves.

As the nutrition genome field grows, and more studies become available, the team will be able to “dive even deeper into the genetic code” to further refine users’ personalized nutrition plans, based on the new knowledge in nutritional genetics, Zhang said. Updated reports may even be made available to past customers.

Since launching last fall, the team has made a slew of revisions in what they initially provide those customers. A recurring theme in feedback from the 500-plus clients who tried it so far was “‘OK, this is great, but now what can I do with it?’” Giugno said.

At the same time, some people want more of the science — they want to know what gene variants they have and don’t have.

The idea is to “strike a balance,” he said.

What the report says

The colorful report then sent to customers includes some general information about DNA and genes, followed by colorful, easy-to-read graphics showing recommended levels of consumption of various nutrients, from carbs and protein to individual types of fats to vitamins and minerals, as well as substances like alcohol and gluten.

From these I learned that both caffeine and alcohol are removed from my system at a slower rate than average. Also that I should consume high levels of omega 3 fats and I have only a moderate sensitivity to gluten.

Next come examples of foods that are especially good for you and why. 

For example, pumpkin is good for me because it matches my needs for moderate amounts of vitamin A and fiber and is low in sugar and high in zinc. Fresh oysters are low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in zinc with a moderate level of sodium (if only I liked them!).

The report concludes with a larger list of foods your DNA says you should eat more of.

These fall under headings like fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, legumes, starches and more,  about five or six dozen foods in all.

Just because a healthy food does not appear on your list does not mean you shouldn’t eat it, Giugno and Zhang stressed. It just means another healthy food edged it out because it had more of what your genes say are good for you.

And it doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally indulge in not-so-healthy foods.

“If you want to go to McDonald’s after this, go,” Giugno said. “But then tonight at Whole Foods, choose some items on this list.”

Other factors not included

The initial report is based strictly on DNA. It does not take into account a person’s height, weight, build, age or gender, health history, activity level or lifestyle, or any dietary preferences. This information is not even collected.

“You’re vegetarian? Your food lists will still contain meat,” Giugno said.

However, for an extra fee ($199), you can sign up for the company’s Concierge program, four weeks of one-on-one coaching with a registered dietitian plus meal plans. For this service, all of that additional information is collected and taken into account.

If you just want a few meal plans, those also available a la carte for $19.99 (for three) or $29.99 (for five). To make the gene-based meals more palatable, GenoPalate has partnered with local chefs with years of experience. My meal plans, for example, were created by Andy Tenaglia, chef-owner of Lagnappe Brasserie. 

Meal plans can be created for individuals, or they can be tailored to couples or whole families, in which case all family members’ nutritional profiles are taken into account.

And what of our ancestry? Does the diet followed for centuries by our ancestors come into play?

Giugno said the GenoPalate team thought about incorporating an ancestral food component into its reports but decided against it.

“We want to stay focused on the individual,” he explained. “This is about you, not the average Scandinavian.” …..


Michelle Berryman