Great expectations: Personalised nutrition promise belies status as an emerging science

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

From L-R: Adrian Hodgson, nutrition innovation consultant at Spoon Guru, Mariette Abrahams, personalised nutrition business consultant at MA Consulting, Tom Lee, editor of Foodspark, Emily Foster, founder & dietitian of Glowing Potential (Chair).
From L-R: Adrian Hodgson, nutrition innovation consultant at Spoon Guru, Mariette Abrahams, personalised nutrition business consultant at MA Consulting, Tom Lee, editor of Foodspark, Emily Foster, founder & dietitian of Glowing Potential (Chair).
The promise of personalised nutrition could be overshadowing the reality of this sector as an emerging field, leaving it prone to oversimplification in order to attract consumer interest.

Those were the thoughts of Mariette Abrahams, personalised nutrition business consultant at MA Consulting, who was speaking at The Ingredients Show in Birmingham this week.

Commenting about the rise of services claiming to use genetic profiling in order to tailor an optimum nutritional regimen, Abrahams spoke of a sector in its infancy that needed to manage the demands of expectant consumers.

“People want DNA sequencing; they want someone to tell them what, how and when to eat,”​ she said.

“The challenge for me is the research. It is always building but sometimes I do see an oversimplification or exaggeration of the science that we can use at the moment.

“DNA testing is an emerging science. There are specific genetic variations that have very good scientific evidence behind them. As we understand more, we can apply this knowledge.

“The companies that stand out are the ones that are doing the research, pushing out the papers, doing international, collaborative research. These companies are the ones working on the challenge, and specifically stating that it is an emerging field.”

Personalisation for shoppers

Once the realm of athletes and sports enthusiasts, Abrahams’ comments come as the concept of personalised nutrition is entering the mainstream at a brisk pace, with manufacturers and retailers eager to capitalise on interest.

In January this year, UK retailer Waitrose revealed it was exploring the possibility of using DNA tests to recommend or discourage shoppers from certain food items.

The initiative—DNANudge—uses mouth swabs that are then scanned from which data is then sent to a smartphone app.  

With a basic DNA profile, shoppers can then be ‘nudged’ towards products based on their genetic predispositions, potentially aiding in the prevention of conditions like type 2 diabetes.

Fellow retailer Tesco announced in May 2017, that it had collaborated with dietary management firm Spoon Guru to help customers filter food searches on the Tesco app and online.

Initially available on the Tesco’s mobile app, the technology allows precision nutrition searching for products that meet 11 food intolerances, such as lactose and gluten, and six diets including vegetarian, vegan, low fat, and low salt.

“Personalised can also mean precision, trying to get people back to the basics of eating,”​ said Adrian Hodgson, nutrition innovation consultant at Spoon Guru. “That’s really what personalised nutrition is all about.”

“I agree that personalised nutrition is tiered at the moment. We can tier technology and personalisation from getting the basics right, then seeking guiding principles from nutritionists,  then it may be using biological and physiological biomarkers, and then its ‘omics’ technology that looks at genes.”

A fine line in communication

But as much as personalised nutrition runs the risk of oversimplification fellow panellists argued that there was a fine line between arming the consumer with the facts and confusing them with an array of scientific jargon.

“A key point is to keep the message simple,” ​said Tom Lee, editor of Foodspark. It’s very easy to overcomplicate the message of nutrition as nutrition is very complicated,”

“It’s tempting to communicate as much as possible to the consumer, but if you do too much it turns off the consumer.

“So one of the key things for retailers and manufacturers is for the message to be succinct and that you target through the use of clear points.

“And you can go into more detail. The great thing about technology is that you can always drill down at a later stage and add detail for people, who want to click through.”

The use of technology, social media and personal data was also a talking point, with recent infringements occurring on Facebook regarding personal information use on the panellists’ minds.

“From a regulatory point of view, if we are going to use this data to shape people’s nutritional recommendations, then we must ensure we are very transparent, how we use the data etc​,” said Abrahams.

“They should be able to explain this kind of testing and give consent. They should be explaining it and saying ‘This is what it says. However, this is how the science works.’  I think that’s important.”

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