A new Agriculture Department effort hopes to coordinate research and allow consumers to better leverage their meals to reduce — or even eliminate — their risk of diet-related diseases.

On Monday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the establishment at USDA of a virtual Agricultural Science Center of Excellence for Nutrition and Diet – shortened as ASCEND for Better Health – to bring together scientists, partner organizations and communities for a focus on science-based solutions that improve the health and well-being of all Americans, particularly in underserved communities.

USDA kicked off a week of action for President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot mission by hosting a Zoom webinar Monday morning with Vilsack and USDA Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young. 

The Moonshot is the administration's ambitious goal to reduce the death rate from cancer by at least 50% over the next 25 years. The effort accelerates the mission Biden oversaw while serving as vice president during the Obama administration. As part of the relaunch, the first-ever Cancer Cabinet was formed, which includes Vilsack as the nation's ag secretary, to offer a whole of government effort.

Vilsack said ASCEND predominantly focuses on prevention, as there are multiple gateways to cancer that need to be “shut off.”

“We know that proper nutrition and better diets can be part of the solution in terms of bringing down that risk,” Vilsack said.

According to the World Cancer Research Fund, 30-50% of all cancer cases are preventable by following a healthy diet and lifestyle. Jacobs-Young, who is also USDA's chief scientist, called cancer “one of the biggest health challenges confronting us today. 

With this announcement, I know that together we are on the road to end cancer as we know it,” she said.

Vilsack said addressing the role of food and health is personal, going as far as referencing his own weight management struggles. Several members of his own family died at a relatively early age, he said, because of health-related circumstances impacted by the health and food choices made which he believes ultimately took their life.

He said the ability to provide precision nutrition is going to give individuals and groups of individuals the kind of information that will allow them to make informed choices.

“We recognize that when it comes to using food and nutrition to improve health-related outcomes for individuals, we cannot take a one size fits all approach. We know that food selection is a complex process, influenced by so many factors including food availability, economics, and cultural and social contexts,” Vilsack said.

“The bottom line is that we need to develop a more precise understanding of how we interact with food, what factors influence our food choices, and how our genetics and environment lead to specific health-related outcomes, especially in historically underserved populations,” he added.

Vilsack said the virtual center will immediately connect existing resources, including people and programs, to leverage expertise and increased coordination and cooperation. ASCEND will have three goals: coordinating precision research, cultivating new ideas and approaches, and expediting the delivery of results. 

USDA currently invests over $180 million in intra- and extramural nutrition-related research, and ASCEND will coordinate and evaluate precision nutrition science.

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Vilsack said ASCEND will also capitalize on public-private as well as community partnerships, which he said are “essential for building the trust and the relationships needed to translate research into impactful solutions across diverse communities.”

The more targeted approach Vilsack detailed in the announcement runs counter to previous methods, which included research focused on a "whole population" approach and an emphasis on nutrient deficiencies.

While that approach provided the food industry information to better fortify foods and improve the overall nutrition of products, changing the focus of food research to specific health-related outcomes, Vilsack said, could allow nutritional advice to eventually be better tailored and precise in recognizing the interactions between individuals and their food. That understanding could lead to the prevention or reduction of the risk of diet-related chronic diseases.

“The goal obviously over the long haul is to coordinate all of this in an effort to try to get relevant information to people that they trust," Vilsack said. Then, consumers can use the information to "make better health decisions and diet decisions, which results ultimately in a reduction of cancer and a reduction of chronic diet-related diseases.”

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