British Journal of Nutrition

Full Papers

Metabolic imprinting, programming and epigenetics – a review of present priorities and future opportunities

Bryan Hanleya1, Jean Dijanea2, Mary Fewtrella3, Alain Grynberga2, Sandra Hummela4, Claudine Juniena5, Berthold Koletzkoa6, Sarah Lewisa7, Harald Renza8, Michael Symondsa9, Marjan Grosa10, Lucien Harthoorna11, Katherine Macea12, Fiona Samuelsa13 c1 and Eline M. van Der Beeka14

a1 William Wrigley Jr Company, Chicago, IL, USA

a2 INRA – Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, 147 rue de l'Université 75338, Paris Cedex 07, France

a3 MRC Childhood Nutrition, Institute of Child Health, 30 Guilford Street, London WC1N 1EH, UK

a4 University of Muenchen, Munich, Germany

a5 INSERM, France

a6 University of Munich, Munich, Germany

a7 Bristol University, Wills Memorial Building, Queen's Road, Bristol BS8 1RJ, UK

a8 University of Marburg, Biegenstrabe 10, 35037 Marburg, Germany

a9 Nottingham University, University Park, Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK

a10 FrieslandCampina, Stationsplein 4, PO Box 1551, NL-3818 LE Amersfoort, The Netherlands

a11 Mead Johnson Nutrition, Middenkampweg 2, 6545 CJ Nijmegen, The Netherlands

a12 Nestlé, Lausanne 26, Switzerland

a13 ILSI Europe, a.i.s.b.l., Avenue E. Mounier 83, Box 6, B-1200, Brussels, Belgium

a14 Danone, Wagenin, The Netherlands


Metabolic programming and metabolic imprinting describe early life events, which impact upon on later physiological outcomes. Despite the increasing numbers of papers and studies, the distinction between metabolic programming and metabolic imprinting remains confusing. The former can be defined as a dynamic process whose effects are dependent upon a critical window(s) while the latter can be more strictly associated with imprinting at the genomic level. The clinical end points associated with these phenomena can sometimes be mechanistically explicable in terms of gene expression mediated by epigenetics. The predictivity of outcomes depends on determining if there is causality or association in the context of both early dietary exposure and future health parameters. The use of biomarkers is a key aspect of determining the predictability of later outcome, and the strengths of particular types of biomarkers need to be determined. It has become clear that several important health endpoints are impacted upon by metabolic programming/imprinting. These include the link between perinatal nutrition, nutritional epigenetics and programming at an early developmental stage and its link to a range of future health risks such as CVD and diabetes. In some cases, the evidence base remains patchy and associative, while in others, a more direct causality between early nutrition and later health is clear. In addition, it is also essential to acknowledge the communication to consumers, industry, health care providers, policy-making bodies as well as to the scientific community. In this way, both programming and, eventually, reprogramming can become effective tools to improve health through dietary intervention at specific developmental points.

(Received January 13 2010)

(Revised July 19 2010)

(Accepted July 20 2010)


c1 Correspondence: ILSI Europe a.i.s.b.l. - Avenue E. Mounier 83, Box 6 - 1200 Brussels - Belgium, fax: +32 2 762 00 44, email:


Abbreviations: ALSPAC, Avon longitudinal study of parents and children; BMD, bone mass density; CL, cardiolipin; CM, cow's milk; DXA, dual X-ray absorptiometry; IQ, intelligence quotient; IUGR, intra-uterine growth retardation; FA, fatty acid; IGF-1, insulin-like growth factor-1; LCPUFA, long-chain PUFA; RCT, randomised control trials; T1D, type 1 diabetes; TRIGR, Trial to reduce type 1 diabetes in the genetically at risk