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'The digital revolution is a gamechanger for the health and food industry ' - Mariette Abrahams [Interview]

Personalised nutrition consultant Mariette Abrahams is inspired by the potential of digital innovation to help us eat healthier. She sees a trend in companies offering a tiered approach with online services at the bottom end and professional interaction at the top end.

We talked to her about the role of data-driven health initiatives, health strategies focused on prevention and the effect of GDPR on ensuring data privacy.

Can you give us a brief summary of your career to date?

'I trained as a registered dietitian, however I became a bit frustrated in the clinical arena because of the routine, protocols and hierarchy. I knew I wanted to work independently or create my own company, so I embarked on studying for a business degree and ended up working in medical nutrition at a multinational company as a scientific advisor for a few years. I really enjoyed this role, but again, felt that maybe a multinational setting was not the best match for me and that I needed to shift gears.''I love science, food and nutrition, but the creative part in me wanted more. I wanted to lead, make a difference and be at the edge of innovation, so after moving to Portugal, I set up my consultancy and went into the complete unknown area of business consulting. It was a gamble, but I could see the future clearly, not sure if it was the clean air or sea views, but I knew that personalized nutrition and prevention would be the future, that the industry would explode and that there would be demand for nutrition experts who understood nutrition, technology, business and consumers. So here we are 8 years later, my predictions have come true, I love what I do, working on a variety of projects with clients from different industries in different countries. Every day I wake up inspired to deliver, motivated to make a difference and grateful to lead.'

Can you please help us understand if there is a difference between a nutritionist and a dietitian?

'This is a very important question indeed. Registered dietitians and registered nutritionists both take a degree course in nutrition which includes subject such as food science, chemistry, physiology, microbiology, biochemistry, public health. The main difference is that dietitians do an additional clinical placement which allows them to work with clients who have medical condition as well, and therefore require nutritional therapy interventions. Dietitians are also trained in cognitive behavioural therapy and therefore can combine their clinical knowledge through practical applications, helping individuals to make those difficult but lasting behaviour changes.''While the term may differ slightly depending on the country, both registered dietitians and nutritionists are registered with reputable and regulatory bodies and associations such as the British Dietetics Association, Health & Care Professions Council or the Association of Nutritionists in the UK. Therefore, for consumers and companies looking for truly nutrition science qualified professionals, the first stop should be a nutrition or dietetics association in their own country. Both registered nutritionists and dietitians can work in a variety of fields and settings where food, nutrition, health promotion and prevention are the key focus.''Coming back to my own career, the digital revolution is a game changer for the health and food industry and therefore my move from dietitian to nutrition business consultant in a new industry is certainly not the norm, we are true trendsetters here.'

Do you think that it is safe to use online services to plan your diets or would you rather recommend people consult a qualified nutritionist/dietitian?

'I think digital innovation is a crucial element to our existence. We are already so connected to tech that it is only natural that we look for answers, recipes, solutions, tips inspiration, products, you name it, online. No one should use an online service before doing their homework, but I think saying that online services are unsafe is not realistic nor accurate. There are many credible, evidence-based players currently in the field, and many nutrition professionals offer advice or consultations online as well, therefore research the person giving the advice before following it! A lot of it has to do with consumer push as time is precious, clinic visits not feasible and generally a high consumer demand for instant responses.''If you are looking for ways to help you eat healthier, improve your cooking or see if a product matches your dietary preferences and goals, an online platforms can really help and provide an excellent stop-gap between healthcare professional visits. However, if you are confused by all the online (and at times ridiculous) advice, you have specific health needs, or need more of a coach to guide you, a professional is undoubtedly useful here. What I do see is a trend in companies starting to offer a tiered approach with online service at the bottom-end and professional interaction at the top-end.'

Currently, there is a lot of focus on personalised nutrition, what do you think is its future? Will there be any significant innovations? What’s the next milestone?

'I think in the immediate future, we will see development of increasingly better and healthier foods by manufacturers. I also think that we will see more coordinated health initiatives that are data-driven and locally relevant, funded through private-public partnerships to improve public health.''As we learn more about specific at-risk groups and how specific groups utilize nutrients, we will see technology used more innovatively to improve food accessibility and availability by focusing on issues such as food waste as well as better on-the spot provision for prevention education. I think here, significant innovations will be leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning for all services (public and commercial) to work together.''The next milestone I certainly hope, is that lifestyle medicine will go mainstream and that nutrition is a key and well-resourced part. Health systems are just not able to cope with the levels of preventable chronic diseases and aging populations we see at the moment.  Government and regulators need to back up recommendations with more funding into prevention, and make sure that interventions strategies are data-driven and validated by experts in nutrition & health.'

There are various gadgets available on the market that help us monitor performance during the workout and plan nutritious meals. Are there any gadgets you find particularly useful?

'I tend to keep it simple as I like to switch off digitally at the end of each day. However for me, having my smartphone that tracks my steps daily has really helped me to make sure that I stay active and meet my goal. Plus, although I am a good cook, come dinner time I hit a blank and so recipe apps have been my saving grace by just typing in ingredients that I have in my fridge. I have seen many smart kitchen tools that I think will become part of my future kitchen though, these include a personalised nutrition supplement drink machine, a food composter, a connected oven and steamer. I have been told that a self-cleaning house is a little out of reach at this stage.'

On 25th May GDPR went live. Do you think it has had an impact on the personalised nutrition sector? If yes, how big is it?

'I think it is too early to tell what impact it has had, however GDPR came at the right time when public concern regarding data privacy and protection is at its highest since the internet revolution. Because it is still so new, I would assume that if/when rules are enforced, we will soon learn from those that have been fined or warned, but at the moment, I am not aware of any major challenges apart from updating privacy policies, websites and email marketing procedures.''Key areas where the tech-enabled personalised nutrition sector has been affected include: Firstly, with regards to consent, this usually was obtained electronically or on a form with a signature or checkbox only, however with the new regulations individuals need to be fully informed on what they sign up for when they buy for example a genetic test. This is a very good move. Secondly, consumers now also have the right to know what happens to their sample once it has been analysed as this also constitutes as valuable data. Consumers are starting to understand this now, and companies have to be more transparent, this was a grey area in the past. In addition, consumers can now ask to have their data deleted, which although poses a risk in terms of research, puts consumers in the driving seat with what happens to their data and who they choose to share it with. Quality collected personal data is the currency of the future.'

What is your priority number one/next challenge for the second half of 2018?

'Our first priority is to continue to build an ecosystem of partners to provide a more personalized nutrition service to our current client base by leveraging current and new technologies. This means finding partners who are open to new ways of working, who are committed to diversity, and who share our vision to empower every individual with nutritional knowledge and tools to make the best health choices that are important to them.''We are also restructuring internally to ensure that our business processes are in place to provide the services that companies need in terms of consultancy, training, research and having quick access to nutrition experts who are knowledgeable in personalized nutrition.''Lastly the second half is always busy with conferences and seminars, this year is no different, we are presenting, chairing and contributing to panel discussions all about our favourite topic, personalized nutrition!'
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