Why Food Is Actually Information

Food can change our DNA but we've hardly begun to deal with this groundbreaking discovery
By Sayer Ji
Sayer Ji
Sayer Ji
August 25, 2019 Updated: September 2, 2019

Food, a precondition for the possibility of life as we know it, is rarely appreciated for its true power. Far beyond its conventionally defined role as a source of energy and building blocks for the body-machine, new discoveries on the frontiers of science reveal that food is also a powerful source of information.

We are all hardwired to be deeply concerned with food when hungry, an interest that rapidly extinguishes the moment we are satiated. But as an object of everyday interest and scientific inquiry, food often makes for a bland topic.

This is all the more apparent when juxtaposed against its traditional status in ancient cultures as sacred; or in contemporary religious traditions like Catholicism, in which the communion bread is believed to be changed into the Body of Christ (Eucharist).

But as my previous investigations into the dark side of wheat have revealed, food is one of the most fascinating and existentially important topics there is. And in many ways, until we understand the true nature of food, and its profound impact on our consciousness, we will not be able to understand our own nature and destiny.

How We Got Here

Modern Western concepts of food are a byproduct of a centuries-old process of intense secularization. Food is now largely conceived of in terms of its economic value as a commodity and its nutritional value as a source of physical sustenance.

In the nutritional regard, its value is quantified through the presence and molecular weight of macro- and micronutrients, or its “fat-inducing” calories.

In the process of reducing food’s value to these strictly quantitative dimensions, it has lost its soul. Food is no longer believed to possess a vital life force, much less a sacred one. But the very etymology of sacred, namely, to make holy, and the etymology of holy, which connects to heal, whole, and health, points us toward food’s ability to make us whole.

Food as Nourishment on All Levels

If talk of food as “sacred” and “whole-making” sounds pseudo-scientific, consider how nature designed our very first experience of nourishment (if we were fortunate enough to not have been given a bottle full of formula): breast milk taken from the mother’s breast was simultaneously a nutritional, physical, thermic, emotional, genetic, and spiritual form of nourishment. Food, therefore, can’t and shouldn’t truly be reduced to an object of biochemistry.

And so, as we dig deeper, we discover that the topic of food is a highly cerebral one. And this begins with any simple act of eating, albeit in a slightly different way.

It’s called the cephalic phase of nutrition, “in your head,” which reflects how you are actually experiencing the food. Is it delicious? Does it give you pleasure? These “subjective” aspects profoundly affect the physiology of digestion and assimilation.

My colleague Marc David has dedicated many years to awakening people to this amazing process. Food, therefore, begins in a context that transcends merely physiochemical conditions and concerns.

The nocebo and placebo effects, which are powerful forces in the setting of clinical medicine, also apply to the field and experience of nutrition. And therefore, it is hard to ignore how this important layer of nutrition—the firsthand experience, and even our intention and level of gratitude—has been lost in the fixation on the chemistry and reductionism of food science.

But the inquiring mind wants more specific scientific answers to the question: How does food make us whole? How does its arrangement of atoms possess such extraordinary power to sustain our species? Why can’t we answer the most rudimentary questions that go back to ancient times, such as the still timeless mystery and miracle of how bread is transmuted into blood and flesh?

Perhaps, the information (and intelligence) within food will help explain some of this mystery. After all, information literally means “to put form into.” This understanding will add much-needed depth and nuance to conventional nutritional concepts where food is still conceived as a bunch of essentially dead and uninteresting atoms and molecules.

The Old Story of Food as a Thing

Our concept of food is still generally constrained to the Newtonian view that all things are comprised of atoms, externally related to one another, and built up from there into molecules, cells, etc.

The story goes that when we eat things, digestion breaks them down into their constituent parts and our bodies then take these parts and build them back up into our blood and bones.

This very mechanical, simplistic view, while valid in limited ways, no longer holds true in light of the new biology and science. Along with this view of food as matter, is the correlate perspective, that food can be “burned” for energy and that, like a furnace or a car, our body uses food for “fuel” measured by calories to drive its engines along.

Of course, this is reinforced by nutrition labels that make it appear that food is as simple as caloric content and the presence or absence of a relatively small set of essential nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals.

I will call this reductionistic view of food “the old story of food,” in recognition of Charles Eisenstein’s thinking. This narrative focuses on two primary dimensions: food as matter and food as energy.

Food as Matter

If we are looking at the “material” aspects of food, we are looking at the physically quantifiable or measurable elements.

You could not, for instance, objectively measure taste, as it differs qualitatively from person to person. It is a subjective experience. And so, nutritional science focuses on what is presumably objective, namely, quantities like the molecular weight of a given substance, e.g., 50 mg of ascorbic acid, 10 grams of carbohydrate, or 200 mg of magnesium.

These material aspects, while providing information, are not considered to be “informational” in the sense of giving off distinct messages to the DNA in our body, which can alter gene expression. They are considered part of the physical world. Therefore, while providing building blocks for our body, including its DNA, they are not understood to alter or control the expression of the DNA in a meaningful way.

Food, therefore, is considered “dead,” and not biologically meaningful beyond its brick-and-mortar functions in building up the body-machine.

Food as Energy

Energy is commonly defined as the power derived from the utilization of physical resources, especially to drive machines.

In this view, food provides the fuel to power the body-machine. Food energy is conventionally defined in chemical terms. The basic concept is that humans extract energy from food and oxygen through cellular respiration.

That is, the body joins oxygen from the air with molecules from food (aerobic respiration), or creates energy without oxygen (anaerobic respiration) through reorganization the molecules.

The system used to quantify the energy content of food is based on the food calorie. One food calorie is the amount of heat required at a pressure of one atmosphere to raise the temperature of a gram of water by 1 degree Celsius.

The traditional way to ascertain the caloric content of a sample of food is using a calorimeter, which literally burns the food sample to a crisp, measuring the amount of heat given off (its caloric content).

In order to account for the varying densities of material within a sample, e.g., fiber, fat, water, a more complex algorithm is used today, but either way, food isn’t an informational substance in the biological sense (e.g., DNA), but simply a source of energy that can fuel the body-machine.

The New Story: Food as Information

The new view of food as replete with biologically important information, is based on a number of relatively recent discoveries in various fields of scientific research.

For instance, the discovery that food contains methyl groups (a carbon atom attached to three hydrogen atoms (CH3) capable of methylating (silencing) genes, brought into focus the capability of food to profoundly affect disease risk as well phenotypal expression.

If folate, B12, or Betaine—three common food components—can literally shut off gene expression with high specificity, food becomes a powerful informational vector, one which may actually supervene over the DNA within our body by determining which sequences find expression.

This discovery of nutrition’s prime role in epigenetics opened up an entirely new realm of research, including the disciplines of nutrigenomics, which looks at nutrient-gene interactions, and nutritional genomics, which looks at gene-based risks that provide individualization of nutritional recommendations.

Suddenly, almost overnight, food became infinitely more interesting to geneticists, biologists, and medical professionals. It’s newly discovered information role could affect, and, in some cases, control, the expression of the DNA—biomedicine’s holy grail.

Food’s role as a source of methyl group donors capable of epigenetic modulation of DNA expression is a powerful demonstration of its informational properties, but this is not the whole story.

Food also contains classical genetic information vectors, such as non-coding RNAs, which—like methyl donors—have the ability to profoundly alter the expression of our DNA. In fact, there are estimated to be somewhere in the range of 100,000 different sites in the human genome capable of producing non-coding RNAs, far eclipsing our 20,000 to 25,000 protein-coding genes.

Together, these RNAs orchestrate the expression of most of the genes in the body. They are, therefore, supervening forces largely responsible for maintaining our genetic and epigenetic integrity.

These RNAs are carried by virus-sized microvesicles called exosomes found in all the food we eat. They are secreted by all plant, animal, and fungal cells, and survive ingestion to significantly alter our gene expression.

In 2012, a groundbreaking study titled, “Exogenous plant MIR168a specifically targets mammalian LDLRAP1: evidence of cross-kingdom (plant, animal, fungi, etc) regulation by microRNA,” found that exosomal miRNA’s from rice altered LDL receptors in the livers of Chinese subjects, effectively proving cross-kingdom regulation by microRNA exists and is occurring on an ongoing basis through the food we eat.

Another study, this time in animals, found that exosomes in commonly consumed foods, like grapefruit and oranges, affect important physiological pathways in the animal’s bodies.

Essentially, these food components “talk” to animal cells by regulating gene expression and conferring significant therapeutic effects.

The ability of exosomes to mediate the transfer of miRNAs across kingdoms redefines our notion of the human species as genetically hermetically sealed off from others within the animal, plant, and fungi kingdoms.

In this sense, foodborne exosomes are the mechanism through which all living things in the biosphere are intimately interconnected, perhaps even adding a new explanatory layer to how the Gaia hypothesis could be true.

Another important though overlooked mechanism through which food components may carry and transfer energy and information is through so-called prionic conformational states (protein folding patterns).

Prions have been primarily looked upon as pathological in configuration and effect. A classical example is the beta-sheet formation of brain proteins in Alzheimer’s. These secondary protein conformations act as a template through which certain deleterious folding states are transferred laterally between proteins.

But prions aren’t always pathological. For instance, naturally forming prions are essential for the health of the myelin sheath in the brain, and likely perform many other important though still largely unknown functions. So, when we look at the phenomena neutrally, the fact that the conformational state (folding state) of a protein can hold and laterally transfer information essential to the structure and function of neighboring proteins, without needing nucleic acids, indicates just how important the morphology of food may be.

It’s possible, therefore, that food grown and prepared differently, will have vastly different protein folding patterns. This will carry radically different types of biologically vital information.

This is another example where one can not exhaustively assess the value of food strictly through quantitative methods, e.g., measuring how much protein there is by weight. We need also to account for qualitative dimensions, e.g., the vast amounts of information contained within secondary, tertiary, and quaternary conformational states of these proteins.

‘Microbiome of Food’ Full of Information

Acknowledging the role the microbiome plays in the food we eat further deepens our understanding of food as information.

In fact, the microbiome could be considered food’s most profound informational contribution. When we consider the genetic contribution of all the bacteria, fungi, and viruses naturally found in food (especially raw and cultured varieties) this represents a vast store of biologically meaningful information.

Some of this microbial information can even “jump” laterally from these micro-organisms into our body’s microbiome, conferring to us significant extra-chromosomal “powers,” essentially extending our genetic capabilities by proxy. For instance, a recent study identified a marine bacteria enzyme in the gut of Japanese people, presumably a byproduct of having consumed seaweed naturally colonized by it.

This marine bacteria enzyme is capable of digesting sulfated polysaccharides—a type of carbohydrate that humans aren’t equipped to digest because it is marine-specific.

This indicates that the genes provided by these microbes represent a genetic library of sorts, whose contributions may vastly extend the genetic capabilities of our species.

Indeed, the human genome only contains genetic templates for 17 enzymes, whereas the gut bacteria contains genetic information capable of producing hundreds of different enzymes. And these are capable of degrading thousands of different carbohydrates.

There are actually many other capabilities provided by these “germs,” including the ability to produce vitamins (including vitamin C) and other essential bio compounds.

The microbiome of our food could, therefore, be considered an information storehouse. To learn more about how this ancient information (even millions of years old) is preserved in raw foods like honey, read my article: “Could Eating Honey Be a Form of Microbial Time Travel?”

Water as Information Carrier in Food

Another extremely important element is the role of water in food. Not only has water been found to carry energy and information, but water has also been identified as an instrument of biosemiosis.

The water component of food, therefore, could contribute biologically important information—even genetic and epigenetically meaningfully information—without needing nucleic acids to do so.

To learn more about how water has “memory,” and can store and transmit genetic information, read about the DNA teleportation experiment performed by Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier.

As discussed above, conventional food science starts on a completely dehydrated basis, focusing almost exclusively on the “dry” measurable material aspects of the food, or the amount of energy it contains, which ironically requires burning off the water to obtain measurements.

All readily edible food is hydrated. Were it not, it would be dehydrated food, which is generally not considered ready to eat. As such, we can’t talk about biomolecules without considering their hydration shells as integrally and inseparably bound to the dry components, e.g., amino acids, fatty acids, and sugars.

Water has the capacity to carry information and to determine the structuration and therefore functions of the biochemicals and biopolymers it surrounds.

Water, which is capable of taking in free energy from the environment (Pollack’s infrared heat), has its own information and energy. This means, therefore, that food qua water content has the potential to carry relatively vast amounts of information beyond what is found in its material composition itself.

As science progresses, both the quantitative and qualitative elements of water will increasingly be revealed to be vitally important in understanding food as information.

Powerful Implications

When food is looked upon as a vital source of biologically important information that can inform the expression of our genome, it’s much easier to understand how our ancestors considered its creation, production, harvesting, cooking, and consumption sacred.

We can also understand how the seemingly poetic relationships between foods and the organs they nourish may have emerged, via the informational bridges described above (RNAs, prions, water).

Today, as a wide range of industrial farming technologies change the quality (and informational component) of our food, it is no longer sufficient to look at only the material aspects of these changes.

Irradiation, genetic modification, pesticides, soil quality, processing, and a wide range of other factors may greatly alter the informational state and quality of a good without being reflected in overt changes in grosser qualities like caloric and materially defined dimensions.

No longer can we look at the difference, say, between infant formula and breast milk, strictly through the material or energetic lens of conventional nutritional analysis.

On an informational level, they are qualitatively light years apart, even if they have so many similarities in crude nutritional metrics, e.g. similar carbohydrate and caloric content.

This will be true for all areas of food production and nutrition where an essentially dead ontology governs the way we understand and interact with the things we eat.

Once we understand the true implications of food as information, our entire worldview should change. Learn more by reading Sayer Ji and co-writer Ali Le Vere’s chapter in the recently published clinician’s primer textbook: Revisioning Cellular Bioenergetics: Food As Information and The Light-Driven Body.

Sayer Ji is the founder of Greenmedinfo.com, a reviewer at the International Journal of Human Nutrition and Functional Medicine, co-founder and CEO of Systome Biomed, vice chairman of the board of the National Health Federation, and a steering committee member of the Global Non-GMO Foundation. This article was originally published on Greenmedinfo.com

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the sacramental bread of the Eucharist.

Sayer Ji