Personalised Nutrition: how is science and technology driving the movement?
With all signs pointing to personalised nutrition being the next big growth area in the food industry, Sarah Power looks into the science and technology that will drive the trend.
Personalised nutrition is already becoming somewhat of a buzzword in the food industry. Putting it simply, it refers to a shift away from sweeping dietary advice and a move towards nutritional guidance based on individual needs.
This is a trend that holds a great deal of potential partially due to the sheer number of products and services it promises to introduce to the market. From the improvement of smart phone apps and wearable devices, to the introduction of portable food spectrometry and artificial intelligence, the combination of science, technology, and food will encourage the consumer to know exactly what they are putting into their body and why.
For many, the trend will provide unique dietary advice that could contribute to a healthier lifestyle and a reduction in long-term diseases, but the development of regulation is imperative to protect at-risk consumers.
The Big Trends
Business-to-business (B2B) nutrition consultant Mariette Abrahams said: “The benefits of a personalised approach is that the information is more specific to that individual and their lifestyle and therefore you have a higher possibility of better adherence to a plan, increased motivation and better long-term outcomes.”
Big data and artificial intelligence is increasingly being used to better understand the preferences and patterns of behaviour of the everyday consumer. This means we can expect apps and websites to collect data, including food preferences or physiological responses, which will be used to make dietary recommendations.
Industries such as healthcare and retail are already implementing big data and Abrahams believes it will be huge in the world of personalised nutrition: “In the next few years we will see more platforms integrating different data points to predict how someone is likely to respond to a specific trigger or intervention through algorithms and machine learning”.
Smart devices and wearables are already huge among consumers who are concerned with their diet and health. Your smartphone already has the capability to track your heart rate, exercise, diet, sleep, and menstrual cycle and Fitbit claims to have 23.2 million active users.
Abrahams says: “Think 24/7 data collection that is constantly being sent to the cloud and analysed.”
As the technology improves, these devices will only offer more. For example, smartphone-based micronutrient test Nutriphone uses an accessory and a camera to analyse blood.
Abrahams’ final prediction is the growth of instant delivery companies such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats, but healthier and tailored to the exact health needs of the consumer. This will be based on food preferences, health goals and genetics utilising big data and AI.
Abrahams comments: “We will see more people taking a healthier personalised food approach that incorporates ready-made healthy alternatives that works for them.”
Lack of Regulation
With all this data constantly being collected, shared, and used to interpret consumer needs, there are some serious ethical issues to be considered, especially in a sector where there is little to no regulation.
Abrahams explained that this is already an issue as whether or not something is considered a medical device is a ‘grey area’. For example consumers can download apps that offer nutritional and health advice to aid weight loss or reduce blood glucose levels but as it is not classed as a medical device, there are no official medical regulations to protect users and offer accountability.
This lack of regulation is a problem throughout the personalised nutrition sector as it means there is little control over who is interpreting data and how. Genetic testing is already easily accessible for consumers and while qualifications in nutrition vary in quality it is extremely difficult to ensure those offering important health advice based on these tests are adequately trained.
Abramans adds: “This leaves the field wide open for misinterpretation and providing inaccurate information to consumers, we therefore need urgent regulation of the field”.
Add to this the private nature of the companies offering genetic and nutrigenomic tests means there are often discrepancies in results, and this new era of personalised nutrition is looking a lot murkier than at first glance.
As with any discussion revolving around eating habits and nutrition, there also needs to be sensitivity regarding at-risk individuals. Increasing the intensity that we monitor what we eat and why could be triggering to those with a predisposition to disordered eating. This is another reason why healthcare professionals must be involved in regulating how we integrate these new products into our everyday lives.
Abrahams says: “We just don´t have the long-term data to support it yet, so we need to be open and cautious at the same time.”
This may be more difficult than it sounds. The rate of scientific discovery in this area means that it could be difficult for healthcare professionals to keep up and provide their patients with up-to-date guidance.
A Step Further
This is an extremely exciting time in personalised nutrition. it is a burgeoning industry that could completely revolutionise the way we eat. For many of us it won’t be difficult to imagine a world where Bluetooth scales send food data to our smartphones, or a browser plug-in that can translate an online recipe into a food delivery, but the reality is that science and tech is already progressing way beyond this.
Project Nourish is exploring the possibilities virtual reality can offer by allowing participants to experience eating without consuming anything. It may sound pointless but it has the potential to help with weight loss, dietary restrictions such as allergies and eating therapy. The Gas Chromatograph-Olfactometry Associated Taste device uses aroma to make healthy food taste better, reducing salt, sugar, and fat intake. These are just two examples but the list is endless from cutlery that counts calories to portable food spectrometry devices.
The obesity epidemic, the wellness trend, and its current backlash demonstrate that as a species, humans haven’t quite mastered our relationship with food. Perhaps technology and personalised nutrition is the answer but it would also do us no harm to remember that eating is both one of life’s pleasures and a necessity.