Interview: Moira Howie, nutrition and health manager, Waitrose

At the Asset 2018 conference in Belfast last year, Moira Howie suggested that truly personalised nutrition is “within our grasp”. Footprint caught up with her to find out more. 

Footprint: How is personalised nutrition defined?

MH: The tailoring of information and advice that can help individuals optimise their diet according to their specific dietary needs and requirements and latterly their DNA.

Footprint: Do consumers want more personalised nutrition, and what’s the evidence for this?

MH: Personalised nutrition has grown out of the desire and need to meet individual dietary requirements. For instance, the dieting industry where manufactured calorie controlled foods have been available to help individuals manage their weight. And sugar free products have been developed to help diabetics control sugar levels. The area of sports nutrition is linked with improved performance and has spearheaded the way for more tech and a greater level of personalisation. The latest tech is companies offering a quick DNA testing against a number of bio-markers – and the industry now has the opportunity to personalise diets to a greater level including vitamin and mineral status.

Footprint: What kinds of personalised nutrition are on the market already?

MH: There is an increasing amount of wearable technology and apps that enable individuals to monitor their energy balance. At the most basic level this is simply a measure of calories consumed versus calories used through daily activities. However, many apps provide data on the other nutrients similar to the back of pack nutrition data. Where they add value is by allowing the individual to set personal filters for maximum nutrient intake according to age, gender and lifestyle.

On a different level and perhaps not so refined are individuals with specific dietary needs such as allergies where specific products are identified as suitable or not. For instance, individuals with coeliac disease are required to avoid gluten and this has resulted in the growth of foods suitable for those needing to avoid gluten. This market has now extended to individuals avoiding gluten for lifestyle reasons as opposed to the management of a medical condition. Allergies and intolerance expands into all 13 ingredients classed as allergenic by the EU.

Footprint: What are the ethical considerations around personalised nutrition – costs, accessibility, commercialisation (for instance you can get your genome screened commercially now – who owns this data)?

MH: The individual should own their data. Most of companies offering DNA and genomics are storing the data in the cloud. So if the individual decides they wish to 'opt out', their data could no longer be accessed. This has become more important recently with the GDPR requirements.

Footprint: Will this new era of nutrition be ultimately available only to those who can pay for it, or the gadgets required (like wearables)?

MH: Fast forward a few years, it would be good to see this freely available for those who want to more closely align their diet to their individual genetic makeup.

Footprint: Can personalised nutrition be used by food companies and nutritional supplements suppliers in tandem to help prevent disease, for example?

MH: Diet has always been an important component to manage conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Unfortunately, in the UK obesity is a major problem with heart disease and certain cancers also contributing to poor health. Following a healthy balanced diet for yourself and your family is one way to try and mitigate problems later in life. The very young and the very old have specific nutritional requirements and the opportunity exists for specific products that address specific nutritional requirements for ‘life stage’ and lifestyle.


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