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Improving access to personalised nutrition

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The possibilities of personalised nutrition continue to expand – but access so far has been narrow, often favouring tech-savvy consumers. How can the sector be made more equitable?

Personalised nutrition could empower all consumers to make informed decisions about their health and nutrition, especially in light of a recent consensus definition that covers a full range of products and services, according to a panel of experts speaking at a recent panel discussion.

The definition, published in a Foodvalley NL position paper, is: “Personalised nutrition could be a service or a product. It uses individual-specific information, is founded in evidence-based science and has the goal to give consumers control and promote a positive, sustainable dietary behavioural change. This may then result in measurable benefits for personal goals like health improvement and maintenance, or disease specific benefits.”

Not just descriptive, the definition is aspirational too, as the personalised nutrition sector is not yet universally based on strong science that is measurably effective – and consumers may not always be entirely in control of the data they provide.

A goal-centric approach

“I’m fully behind the definition in that white paper,” said Mariette Abrahams, CEO and Co-founder of Qina, a strategic innovation platform. “…It’s all about what your goal is and also about how you get there. We can personalise your nutrition based on your personal preference, your values, your taste and your culture, all the way to a more detailed, high-level ‘omics’ approach.”

However, she noted that companies need to do more to understand where consumers are coming from, ensuring that advice is tailored to the diverse communities it is meant to serve.

“Equity is high priority when it comes to personalised nutrition,” she said. “Looking at the digital tools that we use, how are the recommendations being made? Is there a human checkpoint being made to check that not everybody is being recommended a green smoothie for breakfast if they don’t have access to fresh products?”

Beyond the tech

She said that nutrigenomics was just one tool in personalised nutrition, but by putting the consumer’s goals at the centre, other approaches were also valid, such as personal shopping, dietary recommendations or customised recipes.

“Personalised nutrition is informed by the technology,” she said, underlining that it is not defined by it.

Nard Clabbers, Chief Science Officer at personalised nutrition tech company Happ, said:

“In the past, companies in personalised nutrition were often started with tech-savvy people who built really techy consumer propositions around that, not realising that they really limited their target audience to those who are also tech-savvy.”

He said he was much more interested in appealing to those who were perhaps less health-conscious and were having difficulty reaching their goals.

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Building trust

“The whole foundation of personalised nutrition is trust and transparency, using that to build a relationship with your consumer,” he said. “For many brands this relationship with the consumer is missing… I think that gaining their trust by giving good advice and being modest in your advice is really important.”

According to Rick Miller, Associate Director of Specialised Nutrition at Mintel:

“When it comes to personalised nutrition, we are looking at having a personal interchange between the consumer and the sharing of their data… The key point is that something happens and the consumer takes action on that information – it’s not just for the sake of it.”

Abrahams added:

“If brands can get it right, not only thinking about the product, but also about the wider reasons consumers are choosing those products, that’s where the trust will come from.”

What about all that data?

The use of personal data has been an uncomfortable topic for the sector, but that is starting to change, as companies increasingly consider the balance between retaining consumer trust and improving their product or service.

Clabbers explained that his company’s platform works by using consumers’ personal data to provide personal nutrition advice, but according to its model, the consumer will always be in charge of their own data and will allow access only if they agree to a specific use.

“I think that is the future of data ownership,” he said.

Abrahams said that companies could do more to communicate what they are doing with consumers’ information – and not only in the small print when someone signs up for a service.

“We should be starting now by saying, ‘this is what we’ve collected and this is how we are using it’, so people can understand how technology evolves by using your data,” she said.

“How long they hold the data for is more concerning, and what happens to it thereafter,” added Miller. “Companies can’t hold data forever. There needs to be a point when they delete it or ask consumers whether they can continue to use it.”

Miller said there might be moral reasons to hold onto certain data, such as better understanding of health conditions or the microbiome, for example, but that needs to be explained to consumers.

“I think that’s going to come, otherwise, there’s going to be a big backlash,” he said.

Clabbers suggested starting with as little personal information as possible and building up from there.

“We can only measure what we are going to use,” he said. “It’s important to work with that limited data. In the future, you can keep adding parameters on the input side and explain to the consumer how it benefits them… Starting small and growing towards more parameters is also taking your consumer along on the journey, and that is very important in personalised nutrition…It’s a matter of not over-promising.”

Connecting the dots

Niche companies still dominate the personalised nutrition space, and Clabbers said this was one of the things that has held back mass-market uptake. Building an eco-system of companies – digitally connecting perhaps a retailer, a gym and a restaurant – could help overcome this challenge, he said, providing personalised advice where and when it is needed.

“I’m all for nutrition consultations on tap for people who are really ready to make a lifestyle change but don’t know how to go about it,” said Abrahams. “The government can help, through reimbursements, incentives and rewards…We are starting to see it, but it’s not happening enough because the dots are not connected. We need the retailers, the health practitioners and the digital tools.”
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