Science-led personalised nutrition is slowly gaining ground, particularly in areas like gut health where our advancing understanding of the microbiome is supporting innovation.
“Personalised nutrition needs to follow the science, and increased understanding of the gut microbiome makes gut health the primary avenue for the time being. It’s becoming easier for people to understand their own gut health and establish a link to their nutritional needs,” Phil Mackie, managing partner of Foods & Beverages at Oakland Innovation, told FoodNavigator.
He acknowledged that the nascent personalised nutrition space is still in its infancy. The relatively well-developed science behind gut health means this category is likely to act as a beachhead in the evolution of consumer expectations on personalisation – and the industry’s ability to deliver. “This is a step forward from where individuals choose products based on lifestyle goals. But we’re not yet at the stage where peoples’ genetic makeup can be easily used as a basis for dietary recommendations. Right now, gut health offers the most exciting and accessible route to personalised nutrition,” Mackie suggested.
Oakfield has just launched a new whitepaper examining how large-scale food and beverage manufacturers can innovate around personalisation, Unlocking personalised nutrition.
Mackie believes that innovation around personalised nutrition is going to be increasingly important - and companies that develop comprehensive strategies stand to benefit. "There are still many challenges to overcome, but current market activity indicates that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. This is going to be a significant growth area for the food and beverage industry, and players that can put the pieces together first will gain competitive edge."
The challenge of delivering personalisation en masse
To date, efforts around personalisation have often focused on delivery and/or format adaptions. Further work is needed before the sector can move to the next level of truly personalised product formulations.
In fact, the biggest – and most fundamental - barrier is the way the current food system operates. Mass production models deliver food that is cheap and safe at scale. How can they be adapted for a future that is personalised?
Rather than a personalised revolution, this issue prompts Mackie to believe that we are likely to see an evolution towards more personalised products.
“Personalised nutrition is complex to deliver. Clearly, it’s not cost-effective to manufacture fully personalised formulations in the mass market pre-packaged category. However, there is a middle ground where manufacturers can offer more precisely tailored products, for instance using late stage assembly of products. This transition will be easiest for the food service sector, but there is much potential for the pre-packaged category as well,” he predicted.
Process modification and food tech could hold the key
According to Mackie’s assessment, while personalisation could act as a disruptor to the current mass production food system, there are ways food makers can adapt.
“The limitations of manufacturing facilities designed for largescale production pose the biggest barrier, but it’s possible to overcome this with process modifications. Late stage assembly of meal kits or products made fresh at the point of purchase are one option. The core product would be manufactured at scale, then adapted to meet an individual’s specific nutritional needs,” he suggested.
Technological development is also likely to influence how the sector develops, from the interface with consumers, through to food makers’ ability to personalise products. “Technology has a vital role to play here, in terms of defining individuals’ needs, delivering personalised products and giving consumers ‘reasons to believe’ in the benefits of products with a higher price tag than non-personalised alternatives,” Mackie suggested.
“Digital engagement with consumers offers an effective way to combine mass-customised gut health products with a deeper personalised nutrition experience,” he elaborated, pointing to Nestle’s efforts in Japan as case in point. In the market, the Swiss food group operates the Nestle Wellness Ambassador programme for personalised nutrition. Users upload pictures of their food in an app and submit blood and DNA samples to identify their susceptibility to high cholesterol or diabetes. They then receive lifestyle recommendations and capsules of 'specially formulated supplements’ to make nutrient-rich teas and smoothies.
If the personalisation trend has anything to teach us, it is that a one-size fits all answer is not enough. For this reason, Mackie thinks the personalised nutrition category will be fragmented. “There’s likely to be a personalised nutrition spectrum, with highly personalised products at one end and mass-customised products tailored to the needs of defined groups at the other.”
Bringing production closer to the consumer and adopting localised approaches to innovation and production could also become increasingly important, Mackie continued. “Some models will require an element of localisation, which could be facilitated through partnership models…. Partnerships between large brands and smaller, local stores or distribution centres could provide an effective route to personalised nutrition at scale.”
A ‘joined-up’ approach
As personalised nutrition comes closer to being a market reality, Mackie expects this will require increasing collaboration across the industry.
“We’re likely to see a joined-up approach between food manufacturers and health specialists, as well as a convergence of the food tech and health tech disciplines.”
He suggested that innovation at early adopters like VitaMojo in the UK could point the way to more widespread adoption.
“Players such as VitaMojo are in a good position to lead developments here. In VitaMojo’s novel London restaurants, customers personalise healthy meals to meet their own nutritional requirements. But it’s the software behind the experience that’s really exciting. Last year, the business secured a £10m funding injection to support the wider rollout of its Restaurant Operating System.
“We think developments like this, coupled with agile manufacturing/distribution and technologies giving consumers reasons to believe in the benefits of personalised nutrition, will shape the food systems of the future.”