I have fallen in love with the trace elements

Food chemist Prof. Dr Julia Bornhorst and the research on the right dose

With "Noch`n Toast, noch`n Ei, noch'n Kaffee, noch`n Brei, etwas Marmelade etwas Konfitüre...", the Blattschuss brothers landed a German hit song in 1979, describing the German's favourite breakfast, with which people all over Germany still start their day today.However, the question of whether this is actually balanced and healthy is not really asked by anyone. This is where food chemist Professor Dr Julia Bornhorst comes in and says: "We should not do things just because we have always done it that way." While she emphasises, "I am a big fan of just eating what I feel like," the conscious eating that is now taking hold in the population is also leading us to question whether what we are eating is that rational. "Now the food chemists are slowly coming into play, who have been saying for ten years: we have to rethink all of this in the concepts. Maybe, we should make certain recommendations for certain age groups or also research what happens as we get older."

Our food is safe to eat

In order to inform the public, Bornhorst begins by stating: "In Germany, we have the totally fantastic case that we have an incredibly high level of food safety. None of us has to have any real concerns because it is legally secured in such a way that we really do cover everything along the entire process chain. From corporate responsibility to the consumer, including risk assessment, risk management and the precautionary principle. At that moment, every food that reaches the trade and our plates is provided with a very high level of protection." For those who are still unsure or have specific questions, the scientist recommends "the homepage of the German Society for Nutrition (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ernährung e.V., editor's note), because they deal with nutritional concepts, but also with what the substance does in the body. And they do it on a basis that everyone can easily understand. If you want to know about a certain ingredient or if you are concerned about a certain ingredient, then take a look at the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment or the European Food Safety Authority (texts in English only). Theore, you can get very good information. What are the recommendations? What should I take in per day at my weight and exercise to have a healthy and balanced diet?"

People are getting older and older

The food chemist also deals with the social phenomenon of an ageing society. "We are currently getting older than ever before," she says, "we have many diseases today that were not dominant in the past. These include cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes as well as dementia diseases, which are increasing due to higher life expectancy. This is where Bornhorst comes in with a crucial question: "What is the factor for this? Is it the factor that we are getting older? Or has our dietary behaviour changed that we should actually, now that we know we are getting older, eat differently?" So is there a nutritional answer to healthy ageing without disease, pain or dementia? We need to look from the food side, the researcher explains, to provide optimal support or recommendations, as diet is estimated to reduce cancer risk by 30%. Besides obesity, alcohol consumption and smoking are also discussed as risk factors. Many people simply feast too much, take in too much sugar." Risk minimisation is the keyword and a social change is already underway. Bornhorst also experiences her students eating much more consciously these days. "More thought is being given to vegetables and fruit, in all sorts of different forms of presentation. Whether that is a smoothie, or still the classic apple."
Meanwhile, state institutions such as old people's homes, hospitals or kindergartens have completed the rethinking process as well. "Now, there is the concept of communal breakfast in many day-care centres. You drop your child off and it receives a healthy breakfast there consisting of a wholemeal bread, a bit of cucumber and tomato. When the children nowadays celebrate their birthday in the kindergarten, they have healthy muffins or just a little ice cream with a fruit salad to go with it."

I fell in love with the trace elements early on

A good chemistry teacher at school prepared the path to food studies for the scientifically interested student by experimenting with food and therefore inspiring her to take up the subject . "Back then, I already asked myself, when you process the bread at home, why does the bread actually smell? What happens when the meat smells so good when it is fried. Or why does it smell for so long? I studied smell and molecules," she says, still enthusiastic, "and then I saw that the subject of food chemistry existed." Bornhorst finally enrolled in Münster and discovered her interest in trace elements. "There are so many fields that we did not understand. I personally fell in love with trace elements very early on because we did not know anything about them at the time." Besides the big four elements of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, trace elements actually make up only a very small part, but, Bornhorst says, "without trace elements we could not live. I.e., we have to take them in. This is necessary for our survival, because it is the only way all the enzymatic processes work. The immune system and the cardiovascular system function through them. Without the trace elements, the brain would not develop at all." The scientist is primarily concerned with the elements iron, manganese, copper, zinc and selenium, all of which play a very large role in a multitude of processes.
The crucial problem, about which science cannot make any reliable statement at the present time, is the fact that "we still cannot say how many of these substances we actually need". Even though the consequences of an overdose can be measured, "at the moment, we do not even know whether we are sufficiently supplied with the respective trace elements because we do not have enough markers," she describes the situation. For some years now, the committed academic has been a member of a research consortium of six interdisciplinary research groups dealing with changes in trace elements in old age (DFG research group TraceAge). Approximately 200 test persons were evaluated again after 20 years on the basis of blood samples and nutrition protocols in order to generate evidence that would allow statements on how trace elements change in old age. In this interdisciplinary study, Ms Bornhorst's working group uses model systems such as cell cultures and the nematode C. elegans.

Disease simulation on threadworm

It is only one millimetre long, usually lives just under 21 days and is available via an international database: the threadworm. With the help of this tiny worm, researchers can simulate neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease. "We know the complete genetics. And we can manipulate what we know," she explains. "The worm is an extraordinary research model. It is transparent and, in the study, genes and proteins can even be coloured. We know all the neurotransmitters in its brain (like dopamine and serotonin). The threadworm is completely controlled in its wriggle movement by these neurotransmitters. So if the wriggle rate changes, we know something is wrong with the worm." By administering manganese to manipulated worms and the resulting earlier mortality rate, insights can be gained into the mechanistic consequences of too much manganese. "In the long run, this will allow us to better understand the consequences of an oversupply and undersupply of trace elements and perhaps even bring them back into the "right" balance by adding them externally," Bornhorst explains. Especially in the area of this basic research, interdisciplinary work is infinitely important. "I have quite a few cooperation partners from the most diverse fields. I work with epidemiologists, with analysts, toxicologists and occupational physicians," she enumerates and postulates: "We have to join forces because only together we can achieve any kind of picture!

We only know that we know too little

"We do not even know the status quo yet," Bornhorst describes the research dilemma, "we only know that we know too little." The researcher is also pushing for networking with authorities and industry because she knows that only the findings from joint cooperation will find their way to the consumer. She praises the good cooperation with her colleagues from chemistry and biology at the University of Wuppertal and says: "My dream is to one day be able to tell people who have a disease: maybe I would recommend that you take in a little less of it or a little more of it, then maybe the symptoms will be less.

The most important thing is not to stop asking questions. Curiosity has its own right to exist, Albert Einstein says. That is how science always makes a little progress.

Uwe Blass (Interview on January 9, 2020)


Julia Bornhorst studied and obtained her doctorate at the Westfälische Wilhelms University Münster. She worked for five years at the Institute of Nutritional Science at the University of Potsdam. She has been a professor of food chemistry at the University of Wuppertal since January 2019.





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