This September, FoodBev is using its featured space to bring health and wellness innovations and education to the fore. To begin this month’s focused features, Mariette Abrahams spoke to us about educating consumers on what to look out for in companies which promote personalised nutrition products.
Personalisation is an element expected in all facets of health and wellbeing by consumers. The difficulties and misconceptions of this sector are themes explored below with Abrahams, who has a background in nutrition and currently runs her own consultancy with a focus on personalised nutrition.
Is personalised nutrition just a fad?
In short, the answer is no, the personalised nutrition trend is certainly not a fad. However, just to clarify, personalised nutrition is not something new. Dietitians and registered nutritionists have always personalised diets for people according to medical, cultural, dietary, or allergy reasons, so this is not a new concept.
But if you look at the technologies that have surfaced, such as remote blood testing or microbiome tests, these are new, innovative ways of guiding nutritional recommendations.
The evidence and research for recommendations based on these technologies is only emerging now. A lot of the research has been conducted in Europe and the Americas and therefore we must understand we still have a lot to learn in terms of how the emerging findings apply to those from under-represented populations.
There has really been a real shift in the pace of research and development of the industry in the last two years, possibly because of academic institutions collaborating more, so the evidence base is only growing stronger and consumers are becoming more interested, plus there is a lot of media coverage on the topic.
What are the different ways companies are providing personalised solutions?
Companies have managed to meet consumer demands through different approaches. One area might look at the influence of taste: some taste preferences are acquired through eating the same foods for instance, whilst others may be influenced by genetics, or via environmental exposure. So you might have people with a taste profile that has been learned through their culture, their family influence, or regionally depending on which foods are available.
Other companies look at how an individual responds to different challenges, dietary patterns or even specific supplements by looking at metabolites. Eventually, it will be possible to group people by how they utilise specific nutrients instead of a separation of people due to ethnicity or life stage, for example. Companies can serve customers according to the interest or health goal of the consumer, providing they stay consumer-centric.
Other companies take a ‘big data’ approach by trying to identify patterns within multiple data points in larger population groups. The potential is to be able to provide personalised nutrition advice on a bigger scale which is really exciting.
How can companies responsibly give consumers free reign when it comes to personalised nutrition?
This is one of the biggest challenges in personalised nutrition. As technology is moving at lightning speed, regulation is not moving as fast, so a lot of companies are now making claims that cannot be substantiated with scientific research. We have an explosion of these technologies but also of products that are not based on solid science.
Other companies take a more pragmatic approach, do the research and the legwork and don’t make such bold claims. Instead, they say ‘we cannot be that accurate because we are depending on emerging science’.
This is slowly improving, but there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure the safety of certain products.
Coming from a nutrition background, it is my view that every personalised nutrition technology company should have a registered dietitian or nutritionist on board to ensure that claims can be substantiated and that products consumer-centric and based on science.
In my view, registered healthcare professionals such as dietitians and nutritionists should be there from the idea conception stage all the way through to the product formulation and the design of the application or service.
With the rise in personalised nutrition apps, Abrahams says that ‘this will really help people to shop either in store or online’ when making nutritional choices.
In the last few years, what developments have been the most notable in terms of personalised nutrition?
Personalised nutrition started off with DNA testing maybe eight years ago, the industry quickly evolved into other areas, such as home blood kits for example and microbiome tests.
The other area which I find great, and is helping people on a day-to-day basis, is apps that aid consumers to shop and eat smarter and healthier. All consumers have to do is input their dietary preferences, likes and dislikes, and more detailed elements such as no added sugars or sweeteners, thereby making the process of choosing food products a lot easier.
As consumers can be confused by product labels, companies can provide an easy way to rate suitability of the product for the user, and this will really help people to shop either in store or online.
Also, as so many families eat the same meals in rotation, we can’t ignore the fact that people eat takeaways a lot due to lack of time. We now see restaurants not only providing nutritional information on the menu, but also nutritional analysis so people can decide what is good for them before even stepping foot into the restaurant. People do want healthier choices, so without being awkward or not knowing, the consumer can undergo research on these platforms before deciding where to go for a meal.
How will personalised nutrition affect consumers’ food and beverage choices? Will these effects be lasting?
I think that we are at a stage where the consumers are highly educated, so they do their research, compare, and ask experts and peers before they buy.
Personalised nutrition is not a diet, it is a lifestyle, it is for life. Once individuals understand how to choose products and how they impact their body, small nudges can lead to long-term health benefits.
What is the real drive behind an increased need for personalised nutrition products and services?
The biggest drive has been an increased awareness in health and wellness. Consumers can see the impact poor food choices have on our children and long-term health. People don’t want their families to be unhealthy or ill, so people are taking a more proactive approach earlier on.
Next is the increase in the use of technology. We are at the stage where information is readily available and the cost of accessing health information via Google for instance is more commonplace, albeit an unreliable resource of accurate advice. People are trying to decipher what sources of nutritional information are reliable and which are not, so now we are hopefully now at a stage where experts are being taken more seriously.
People also increasingly like to see proof that a product actually works, either through scientific research or objectively. And therefore the final driver is that the cost of technologies is coming down rapidly, making testing effectiveness more accessible.
We are living in exciting times, and are seeing a massive shift towards prevention and translating dietary preferences into healthy food choices, lifestyles and behaviours that is enabled through new technologies.
What can companies do to create food and beverages that meet the demands of consumers?
Firstly, companies need to understand what the personalised trend entails, how it is evolving and how it affects NPD. This can be achieved through desk-research, trend reports or external consultants.
Next, companies need to become enlightened on what processes and procedures need to be in place in order to encourage innovation, get management buy-in and understand their customers’ behaviour and needs.
Most recently, companies are increasingly using a data-science approach in order to understand how to prioritise research and development, and product pipeline. Starting with a core working group of team members from different departments as well as external experts can be a great way to formulate a plan that is based on internal data to present to top-management when requesting resources to get a new project off the ground.
Lastly, in order to really understand what consumers want, how they think and what helps them towards healthier choices, engage consumers directly and also include registered healthcare professionals who have deep insight into behaviours, clinical research and current guidelines.
Mariette Abrahams, MBA RD PhD cand., is the CEO of nutrition business consultancy Mariette Abrahams.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2020