Until now, personal preference has been a primary factor in the foods we choose. How we might respond to those foods on a personal, physiological level barely affects how foods are made. However, some researchers claim this could be turned on its head. Protein-rich products, for example, have spiked in popularity in recent years, as consumers seek benefits like better satiety or faster muscle recovery after exercise, but some people may benefit more from added protein than others. Indeed, many consumers might not need protein-enriched products at all.
In the future, consumers who would benefit from added protein, energy or more of a particular vitamin might be prompted to buy certain foods when they enter a supermarket, suggests Nard Clabbers, senior business developer personalised nutrition at TNO in The Netherlands.
“Every decision that you make about the food that you buy could be helped with your personalised health profile,” he said. “What you see a lot of companies do, they think that personalised nutrition is about product innovation, that you need more and more personalised products, but we think there is a much larger opportunity to invest in services. You can help citizens with the choices they have to make every day about what to buy and what to eat when.”
Digital health footprint
In practice, this means gathering data about multiple factors affecting health and tracking their effect on the individual. Fitness trackers and nutrition apps are one part of this, but the biggest challenge comes in bringing that data together with health markers like blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels to create a meaningful picture of how each element affects the others.
Some companies already exist, such as InsideTracker and Habit, which use blood tests to identify certain biomarkers, combined with health goals to make personalised lifestyle and nutritional recommendations, but the sector is still in a nascent phase.
Clabbers argues that as information about personal health, fitness and nutrition becomes increasingly interconnected, it has the potential to make food choices more tailored to the individual, and to make healthy choices easier than ever before.
Focus on health
What’s more, the health impacts of foods will become much more important in new product development as the capabilities of personalised nutrition take off in the coming years.
“The business model of the food industry is making the same product on a larger scale for a very low price. That’s the idea now and the health effect of that food isn’t really a consideration,” he said. “We also think that for food producers they will have to take health much more into account than they do now. They may not have to change their products much but I think they will have to differentiate.”
In the dairy category, for example, that differentiation may include calling out particular probiotic strains, rather than just appealing to consumers with a new yoghurt flavour or format.
Personalised nutrition may not be attractive to everyone, but it is likely to hold enormous interest for groups such as athletes, those looking to lose weight, to control their blood glucose or cholesterol, or to slow cognitive decline. Even now, these are the people most dedicated to finding personalised nutritional advice. Other ways of defining population groups could extend its appeal by outlining more individual-specific benefits of certain foods.
“There’s going to be probably countless ways of grouping people, perhaps based on weight or metabolic types,” Clabbers said. “We call it phenotyping as well, which could be to do with DNA – or it could be about lifestyle and what you do with that DNA.”
However, he is reticent about whether the food industry will be able to tap into those groups with new ingredients, or by adding certain nutrients to particular products. The food industry, and nutrition research, has been moving away from looking at individual nutrients independent of their context within a whole food or whole dietary pattern.
“You could design a high magnesium sports drink for instance, but you could also use existing products and get people to eat a diet that’s rich in magnesium. …The opportunity comes in looking at whole food patterns,” he said.
For the industry, there is still a lot of work to do to figure out how to capitalise on the promise of personalised nutrition, and Clabbers says working together and sharing information is vital. It may take five or ten years before current early-stage concepts are mass market applicable, but by then, consumers are likely to have much greater knowledge of the interaction between nutrition and health.
“Personalised nutrition is much more about consumer empowerment than about fancy new products or fancy new services,” he said.