Interview: Your diet on a plate

Personalised nutrition has plenty of potential for foodservice companies provided they can overcome the privacy concerns, says Barbara Bray.

David Burrows (DB): How is personalised nutrition defined?

Barbara Bray (BB): The concept of personalised nutrition was first introduced by RJ Williams, an American biochemist (1893-1988), who said: “Individual patients are far from standardised specimens and medical problems should consistently be considered in terms of the genetically diverse patients, rather than in terms of an absolute normal.” The term “personalised nutrition” then began to emerge with a belief that the nutritional management of diet-related chronic disease could be considerably improved, based on an individual’s genomic data. Nutritional genomics studies both the effect of an individual’s genetic makeup on the response to nutrients (nutrigenetics) and the modulation of gene expression by nutritional compounds (nutrigenomics).

DB: How does personalised nutrition work?

BB: It’s basically a four-stage process. First, the consumer has to be happy to release personal information to a company. Provided this data is in sufficient detail, it can be used as a basis for developing personalised (rather than generic) nutritional advice. Of course, the “patient” then has to be willing to follow the nutritional advice they are given. And if they believe the personalised advice is sufficiently rewarding over and above any generic nutritional advice (for example, “eat more fruit and vegetables”), this can lead to something called a behavioural “lock-in”, whereby they stick to this healthier diet.

DB: What evidence is there of personalised nutrition on the market already?

BB: Apps already exist. Spoon Guru, for example, has partnered with Tesco to create an online shopping experience for people with specific dietary needs. At launch in December 2017, there were 11 food intolerances – including lactose and gluten – and six diets including vegetarian, vegan, low fat, and low salt available. There is also Best In Bag: created by someone with type 1 diabetes, it calculates amounts of carbohydrates in food and combines the nutritional information given on packs to make recommendations for different nutritional needs.

DB: Are there any examples in foodservice?

BB: Yes. Vita Mojo restaurants partnered with DNAFit, a UK-based genetics company, to deliver what they claim is “the world’s most personalised restaurant menu”. Customers complete a swab test, from which DNAFit generates a personal diet recommendation report (including the individual’s response to saturated fat and carbohydrates and their macronutrient needs). Vita Mojo then takes this information and, using an algorithm, creates a number of recommended meals.

DB: Do consumers want more personalised nutrition advice and offers like this?

BB: Consumer choice and behaviour is being influenced by technology at all levels of personalisation, and nutrition is one of those areas. The four-year EU funded study, Food4Me – in which 1,269 people from seven European countries were randomly assigned to either a personalised nutrition or a control group programme – showed that those receiving personalised nutrition via internet-delivered intervention produced greater, more effective changes in dietary behaviour than a conventional approach.

DB: Will this level of personalisation only be available only to those who can pay for it, or the gadgets required (for example, smart watches)?

BB: The data from the Food4Me study suggests that people attach more value to a personalised nutrition service if they have to pay for it. I spoke with the researchers who worked on Food4Me, and they suggested that an independent commercial company would be best placed to do this. Still, the techniques for testing are becoming cheaper and faster so that people with lower incomes could access the technology. Governments may look at it as part of a public health solution. In fact, in the UK, there is an expectation that the service would be delivered by the NHS. This will also need the entire food supply chain to be on board – for example, a mixed salad that contains all the ingredients to support heart health will need to be produced in a certain way to ensure that the micronutrients are all present in the right quantities.

DB: Could the ethical considerations of sharing all this personal data – especially in the current climate – be a challenge?

BB: The management of personal data generated for personalised nutrition purposes is the same as for GDPR, in that permission has to be given for the data to be shared with the selected agent. The provision of personal nutrition services by private health insurance companies such as BUPA, AXA and the like would theoretically pose a conflict of interest – the information could be used to raise the premium of private healthcare, for instance.

Barbara Bray is a registered nutritionist and consultant at the food safety and nutrition consultancy Alo Solutions.

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