She's Designing a Disease-Fighting Menu for Your Gut — and Yours Alone
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we need new ways to fight obesity and diabetes.
By John Krich
At first glance, Usune Etxeberria looks like the Spanish version of a California “Valley girl.” With a continual bright smile and clothes as lively as a Miró painting, she seems the opposite of the stereotypical lab scientist with three advanced degrees. Yet no one could have been more fated, given her personal background, to become one of the world’s leading researchers in the exploding field of what’s variously termed “personalized,” “specialized” or “precision” gastronomy — with major implications for the fight against obesity, diabetes and more.
For starters, she grew up in San Sebastian, perhaps the greatest eating city on the planet, with its numerous Michelin-starred restaurants, gourmet array of pintxos (snacks, similar to tapas) and the Basque Culinary Center, the world’s first institution offering graduate courses in gastronomy, where Etxeberria, 33, now heads one of two teams in its unique LABe Digital Gastronomy Lab. More important, as a Basque herself, Etxeberria says, “My life has always been connected to food.” Family meals were organized at a txoko — a uniquely Basque custom of village eating clubs, until recently all-male — and her friends ate in cuadrilla, another communal way to celebrate through food. “The whole Basque way of relating is through gastronomy, using our natural products in an ecosystem of knowledge and innovation,” she says. No wonder the Basque Country has been self-branded “the culinary nation,” and, ironically, the people who are fiercely proud to call themselves among Europe’s oldest are perhaps the most forward-looking when it comes to food.
Etxeberria — who boasts a master’s degree in nutrition and metabolic science and a Ph.D. in food science and health — says she was always drawn to the “unique reference point with a global strategic vision” of the Basque Culinary Center, a U-shaped modernist wonder hewed into a hillside that is something of an innovation in itself. The brainchild of seven leading chefs returning to their homeland from French training to form the so-called New Basque Cuisine — which in turn spawned the molecular-gastronomy marvel of Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli in Catalonia and a hundred cooking trends in its wake — the BCC, as its devotees call it, was from its 2011 start far more than a glorified Le Cordon Bleu. It was a place to explore all areas that the culinary world touches.
Usune’s team has a clear vision for preventing disease without forgetting the component of pleasure in gastronomy.
Pedro Prieto, Fresh Business Food & Nutrition Innovation
At the center, free from commercial pressures and undue competition — with colleagues who are largely female and inspirational close contact with chefs both fledgling and famed — Etxeberria works with admired scientists twice her age. She’s followed the passion she developed in a previous company, pairing nutrition and diet with analysis of individuals’ microbiome, the community of microorganisms that inhabit the human body, to help athletes avoid injury.
Her first experiment in “gastrosportomica,” as she terms it, was taking a sampling of professional soccer players in Spain and seeing whether matching key indicators of their gut microbe with specific diets could help in preventing all types of injuries (it was largely confirmed by the initial trial). More recently, Etxeberria has been steering her team toward specific dietary solutions to diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome, and she’s beginning a test in collaboration with a Tufts University professor on whether season-specific produce can improve the metabolisms of obese children. She postulates that data such as individual DNA and pathogens can be used as predictive factors for many dietary preferences — with far broader concerns than deciding whether to go for Chinese or Mexican food on a given night.
“Usune has a collaborative spirit and open mind that is wonderful for generating innovation — toward precision nutrition and an increase in restaurants whose offerings can be based on individual parameters of genomes or microbiome and a more healthy, sustainable gastronomy by 2050,” says Pedro Prieto, who works in innovation management for the companies Fresh Business Food & Nutrition Innovation and Jakion in Lima, Peru.
Most startups in the field are utilizing the even more cutting-edge tool of artificial intelligence to “model consumer preferences” and get a leg up on competitors. NotCo, which has Jeff Bezos as one of its investors, uses AI to analyze food on a molecular level and imitate traditional foods — like its Not Mayo. With a more health-conscious approach, another startup, DayTwo, uses AI to analyze the pathogens donated through stool samples to, like Etxeberria’s team, design specific eating programs for diabetics. But AI’s clearest and quickest application may be in monitoring every aspect of food production: from optimal soil conditions to the sorting of potatoes to perfect-tasting fruit. What pesticides were to the agriculture of the past, AI will be for the future.
Etxeberria’s BCC colleagues are also digging into AI, such as the “Ferment-a-Bot,” designed by Blanca del Noval, a former chef from Seville, in collaboration with MIT’s open-source lab. This would be a home kitchen aid, “much like a small oven,” as del Noval describes, which safely controls the entire fermentation process through monitoring humidity and temperature, while checking for potentially toxic mold. It certainly will beat today’s cupboard shelves of Mason jars in terms of elegance and efficiency, taking fermentation and sustainability trends to the next level.
“You could feel impatient to transfer research results into value for society, but I think every step we take is a step forward,” Etxeberria says. And besides, adds Prieto, “Usune’s team has a clear vision for preventing disease without forgetting the component of pleasure in gastronomy.”
Whether in plotting vast fields, tackling nutritional imbalances one human organism at a time or even just identifying one’s inborn taste predilections, the practicality of ideas like swabbing for gut microbes before every cafeteria line is still to be tested. Yet Basques like Etxeberria and her cohorts may just be leading the way. After all, the menus all around them are already among the world’s most avant-garde.
And, as far-seeing local architects cleverly designed it, the descending circular floors of test kitchens and conference rooms of her workplace lead down to a grassy backyard, where the Basque Culinary Center is revealed as an evolving work in progress, resembling an imperfectly balanced stack of dishes.
- John Krich, Former Time stringer in Asia; author of "Music in Every Room: Around the World in a Bad Mood."Contact John Krich