Brightseed maps the dark matter of nutrition

category - ai
sector - food & drink
type - big idea
Big Idea
sector - health & wellness
Emma Cooper-Mullin, director of brand marketing at biotech start-up Brightseed, delves into the world of phytonutrients and their power to revolutionise diets

Can you begin by introducing Brightseed and the company’s area of research?

Brightseed is the developer of an artificial intelligence (AI) platform that we call Forager. And Forager maps the very beautiful and complex world of phytonutrients.

We’re attempting to understand the intersection of plant and human biology at the molecular or cellular level, and to truly understand at the highest resolution possible what happens in our bodies when we ingest plants and how those plants can really support health and wellness holistically.

In simple terms, what are phytonutrients?

If you’re in the food world today, you’re familiar with the big molecules in plants: fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Brightseed is not focused on these big molecules. We're focused on the tiny molecules and those are the phytonutrients. Common ones are resveratrol in red wine, lycopene in tomatoes or flavonoids in berries. We often call them the 'gold inside of plants' or 'the dark matter of nutrition'.

How do phytonutrients figure in the idea of ‘super-foods’, the concept of which has faced some backlash?

There's nothing wrong with super-foods per se, but the word does’'t really mean anything. It's just generally accepted as a marketing term. What people are missing when it comes to super-foods, though, is that the thing that makes them super are their nutrients, and specifically the phytonutrients, which is what Brightseed is attempting to map and discover.

Published by:

23 November 2020

Author: Alex Hawkins

Image: Brightseed, San Francisco


Brightseed, San Francisco

What are some of the ways Brightseed is exploring the concept of food as medicine?

If you want to turn food into medicine and advance nutrition in a meaningful way, you have to look at the tiny molecules inside plants that have anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, neuro-protective or heart-protective properties. But what’s crazy is that we’ve only mapped 1% of the phytonutrients on earth. So, the first step in making food into medicine is understanding the other 99% of phytonutrients, and the biological mechanisms that are triggered when we ingest them. Only then can we know that what we eat makes a clinical and meaningful difference in health outcomes.

Where does your work intersect with sustainability in the food supply chain?

We are focused on the things that are commonly grown and have established supply chains. We are not looking to find the next exotic flower in the Amazon that might cure some rare disease. Brightseed is squarely focused on partnerships in which we can either find natural versions of a synthetic [ingredient] or do some deep research into commonly grown crops, supply chains and waste streams. We're sitting on a gold mine with the common stuff that we're eating and we know this intuitively.

How could Brightseed’s and Forager’s research shape future diets?

Our goal is to help our partners better understand plant-based foods. For example, we're now working with Danone on soy. That’s an interesting example of a common crop with a massive supply chain. But we only know a few things about soy. The results of these types of partnerships have the potential to prove that food grown in a particular way releases more phytonutrients and is therefore more nutritious. Our hope is that there will also be individual phytonutrients or combinations that we can work on together with supplement companies to target specific health areas.

‘We’ve only mapped 1% of phytonutrients on earth. So, the first step in making food into medicine is understanding the other 99%’
Emma Cooper-Mullin, director of brand marketing, Brightseed

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