Nutrigenomics in Everyday Life: About guilt, responsibility and genetic entrepreneurship

Nutrigenomics can dramatically change our view on eating and health because it might enable a calculation of the health risks of different diets on a personal basis. In this project the differences between norms underlying nutrigenomics research and the norms on health, food and genes in everyday life, were studied. The results were used to create an ethical deliberation with different stakeholders on the ways in which insights provided by nutrigenomics research may be used in the future.

One of the studies in this project is a discourse analytic study of everyday talk on genes and overweight (Komduur & te Molder 2013).  This study examines the extent to which some of the presuppositions embedded in (future) nutrigenomics tools,  for example concerning genetic susceptibility to overweight, match people's everyday talk on the relation between food, health and genes.

Participants in this study were shown to orient to different, contradictory notions of how to explain (over)weight. On the one hand, overt genetic explanations of overweight are treated as problematic by other participants , in contrast to more indirect genetic accounts of overweight such as people's physique (‘build’). This indicates that participants treat ‘behaviour’ (and not genes) as the normatively appropriate explanation for overweight. At the same time, however, healthy behaviour is an accountable matter, i.e. it is dealt with as behaviour that is not self-evidently right but requires an explanation. More in general, the study shows how 'gene talk’ is deployed especially to shift responsibility for overweight problems. Looking at current everyday talk on health and genes, we find that genetic information is not (yet) constructed as a window of opportunity – an incentive for proactive health behaviour – but predominantly as an opportunity to attribute guilt and responsibility. The implications of these results for future nutrigenomics tools are discussed.


Komduur, R., Korthals, M. & te Molder, H. (2009). The Good Life: Living for health and a life without risks? On the present script of nutrigenomics. British Journal of Nutrition, 101(3), 307-316

Komduur, R. & te Molder, H. (2013, online first). The role of genes in talking about overweight: an analysis of discourse on genetics, overweight and health risks in relation to nutrigenomics. Public Understanding of Science. doi: 10.1177/0963662512472159