Experts: Olivier Ballèvre (Nestlé Research), Diane E. Clayton (York Consumer Health GmbH)
Personalised nutrition is nutrition that is adapted to the needs of an individual, taking account of their genetic and physiological background. Future applications include prevention activities focusing on lifestyle diseases, supportive measures as part of holistic therapy, and optimising physical and mental performance. By virtue of its industrial strengths and high purchasing power, Switzerland could act as a large-scale test laboratory, work towards improving the cost efficiency of product manufacturing and ensure knowledge is transferred to less wealthy countries.
The term ‘personalised nutrition’ applies to the adaptation of nutrition to an individual, taking account of their genetic and physiological background, as well as the environment in which they live. Its purpose is clearly defined: Analysis of genetic material, clinical and biochemical markers, the microbiome, food intake, physical activity and body composition provides measurable pointers for an individual healthy diet that will prevent diseases of affluence, shortcomings in nutrient supply, and deficiency syndromes. The term encompasses a variety of different but related approaches. These range from targeted nutrition that takes into account special needs or requirements at different stages of life and is derived from generalised data on the population as a whole, to precision nutrition, which consists of highly individual solutions based on patient-specific data. The term ‘personalised nutrition’ encompasses not only the actual nutrition itself, but also services and recommendations.
Today, personalised nutrition mainly takes place in the context of online retailing, and involves the sale of products (mostly food supplements) and services that meet customers’ personal requirements. On such platforms, retailers ask about the customers’ history, lifestyle and needs and use the information to recommend food supplements. Alternatively, there are websites where customers can choose recipes and menu plans based on their own assessment of their personal needs. Both pursue the common goal of helping prevent chronic lifestyle diseases, such as type 2 diabetes. However, dieticians also offer such services, either as part of consultations or via websites. One common example is the prediction of vitamin B12 requirements based on analysis of a few genes, a technique which has a good success rate. Although the promise of ‘one individual – one product’ has still not been fulfilled, it might be in the near future – albeit only for pets, as their diet is usually based on just one product. As breed-specific pet food is already available today, products that are specifically tailored to the needs of an individual pet and only about 15 percent more expensive than conventional pet food are not too far away, thanks to automation.
Personalised nutrition represents a highly interdisciplinary field of research, based on cooperation between the food industry and manufacturers of diagnostic products or wearables, along with healthcare professionals and health insurers. Future applications will make use of this diversity and include both lifestyle products and medical devices. The optimisation of mental and physical performance with personalised food supplements is now no longer confined to elite sports and is becoming more common among a growing portion of the population. This is based on diagnostic tests for home use (see article point-of-care testing) that deliver evidence-based recommendations. Progress in understanding the interplay between genetic information and personal situation will mean that diets tailored to individual needs could have a preventive effect on risks of illness and be used alongside medicinal or holistic therapy when diseases occur.
Personalised nutrition and precision nutrition offer members of society an opportunity to critically assess their own lifestyle, invest in their own health, and experience positive effects with regard to the prevention and costs of illness. On the other hand, certain population groups have inadequate knowledge about the risks of modern nutrition trends and lack the motivation to make behavioural changes that would have a positive impact on health. Information and education are essential in achieving broader acceptance here. Only then can personalised nutrition be implemented at all levels – with fresh products in the home kitchen, via food supplements, or in canteens and delivery services.
In both research and industry, Switzerland has a high level of competence in the relevant areas. This, combined with the Swiss population’s high standard of living and above-average financial resources, could enable Switzerland to act as a large-scale test laboratory, work towards improving the cost efficiency of product manufacturing and ensure knowledge is transferred to less prosperous countries.
Although analysis of individual genetic information is one important aspect of personalised nutrition, it is not the only one. Changes in genetic material as it adapts to environmental influences also strongly influence a person’s requirements, as do gut flora (see article microbiome), lifestyle and age. Scientific progress, a systemic approach and a high level of digitalisation are needed to understand the relationships between factors and to derive robust recommendations. This also includes the development of reliable biomarkers in the body that provide information about an individual’s state of health. Last but not least, there is also the question of who owns the collected data and how it can be guarded against misuse.
Developing affordable personalised products is a challenging task. The use of modern manufacturing processes like 3D printing, as well as digital technologies such as big data analysis, automation, modelling (see article digital twins) and networking within production (see articles connected machines, Internet of Things) should provide the necessary scalability and new business models. However, manufacturers must be aware that, in order to gain and retain customers’ trust, there should be no discrepancy between claims and reality when it comes to the expected effects.
Close cooperation between universities, industry, insurance companies and politicians is essential in helping the topic gain further momentum. A comprehensive approach should be adopted in which the public are sensitised to the importance of personalised nutrition. Fun learning programmes for children are also a possibility. From a political point of view, it may be worthwhile to fund initiatives like Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley and the establishment of the necessary start-up community. This should also include an appropriate regulatory framework that does not inhibit innovation, but protects products and customers at the same time. On a political level, initiatives should be supported in the context of preventing diseases where personalised nutrition has proven to have beneficial effects on the development or treatment of the disease, like type 2 diabetes.