How do we empower consumers to make better choices about their personal health?

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The Taste Tomorrow survey demonstrates that consumers are interested in nutrition adapted to their personal needs. Nard Clabbers, a Business Developer at TNO, a Dutch independent institute for applied scientific research, is an expert on personalised nutrition. He talks about the latest developments in this fledgling field.  

How do we empower consumers to make better choices about their personal health?

Informed consumers
According to Clabbers, personalised nutrition is about empowering people to improve their health by providing personalised nutrition advice that allows them to adopt a healthier diet. Personalised nutrition involves the use of individual measurements – such as blood values, metabolism, cholesterol and fitness – as well as insights into lifestyle and personality. Providing a clear picture of an individual’s health status, this creates an informed foundation for offering the right health-promoting products or services. This may involve tailored dietary advice, specifically designed foods, such as a 3D-printed meal or a supplement tailored to the individual’s mineral balance. Or the results may be used to compose a detailed shopping list, thereby helping the client navigate the huge supermarket offering to make the right – healthy – choice. Clabbers: “I consider personalised nutrition a form of empowerment: it helps consumers improve their diet by making the right decisions.”

Lifestyle trumps DNA
People used to think that personalised nutrition requires DNA analysis and that the ideal diet can be formulated by looking at a person’s genetic profile. According to Clabbers, this is an outdated assumption. “Imagine I’ve got a twin brother who leads a very different life. For example, he doesn’t exercise at all, outweighs me by 50 kilograms and is a lot more stressed than I am. It wouldn’t make sense to give us both the same nutritional advice even though we have the exact same genes. Genes are relevant, certainly, but they aren’t the only factor involved”. This is why an understanding of someone’s lifestyle is much more important for targeted dietary advice.

How do we empower consumers to make better choices about their personal health?

No annoying coach
“Personalised nutrition is often directly associated with food products. I consider it more of a service that helps inform your dietary choices. Personalised nutrition isn’t an app or an annoying coach constantly looking over your shoulder, telling you what you must and can’t eat. There’s no electric collar that is activated as soon as you drop some chocolate into your shopping basket. Draconian measures don’t work at all when you want to nudge people in the right direction.” According to Clabbers, personalised nutrition only works when the advice is aligned with someone’s intrinsic motivation. That is the only way to achieve true behavioural change.   

“We all get the munchies at times. For some, that means eating a bar of chocolate or a bag of crisps, others will clear an entire bucket of ice cream or order a pizza. Personalised nutrition also involves looking at how we can fit these less-than-healthy episodes into a healthy diet. Consumers know that indulging in snacks isn’t good for them. There is no need for anyone to tell them. But it is interesting to be aware of better alternatives should you decide to give into the craving. Or how to compensate for the occasional sinning, at least in part.” It all revolves around enriching the knowledge of the consumer, allowing them to make conscious choices. “Knowing what the healthiest option is at all times, is key. Whether we always end up going for it or not.”   

A healthier society
Clabbers and his colleagues hope their research will contribute to a society where people aren’t just able to make the right – healthier – choices, but actually want to. A society where everyone has easy access to healthy products but also where each consumer knows exactly what healthy products best to eat at that specific moment in time. This depends on the context. “Telling someone who lives in an American ‘food desert’ to eat more fresh vegetables or someone who comes home late at night every day to prepare themselves a stew more often, is pointless. Part of our journey is to find ways of better informing people about what it is they need; the other part is to seek innovations that make healthy nutrition easily accessible to all.”

How do we empower consumers to make better choices about their personal health?

A need for cognition
One of the most eye-catching results of the study into personalised nutrition conducted by TNO and Wageningen Research, is the importance of psychosocial factors in personalised nutritional advice. “Personalised nutrition began from a more technological gadget perspective”, Clabbers explains. “But it turns out that getting to know your consumer is key. We need to learn how to approach personalisation at multiple levels: biochemical as well as psychosocial”. An example: imagine two people with the exact same physiological need of increasing their B2 vitamin intake. They may have vastly different ways of achieving behavioural change. “Perhaps one of them has a greater need for an explanation of why it is good to eat more whole wheat bread, while the other person would be perfectly satisfied with being told ‘eat this and you’ll be fine’. These are substantial differences: in terms of what motivates them but also how they want to be informed. Little differentiation is being applied in this area at the moment, even though it remains an important aspect of personalisation.”

A demand-driven business model 
Clabbers continues: “It is striking how little personalised nutrition seems to be catching on among major food companies”. The current business model of a lot of these food producers is diametrically opposed to personalised nutrition. In order to make the step towards personalised nutrition, food producers need a demand-driven business model. Which is difficult when the focus has always been on producing as much food as possible at low cost.

“We expect today’s dominant decision-making factors – price, flavour and convenience – to remain important to consumers in the future. But the importance of sustainability and health is expected to increase. Sustainability will eventually even grow into a hygiene requirement. Just like you can’t buy something today that isn’t food-safe, you won’t be able to market something that hasn’t been produced sustainably in the future. However, health effects remain a personal factor. That is where Clabbers sees opportunities for personalised nutrition: the ability to measure your own health and the effect of food on your body will become extremely relevant because of the direct personal benefits you stand to gain.” 

How do we empower consumers to make better choices about their personal health?

Retailers set the trend  
Clabbers expects retail to be the first place where personalised nutrition will be applied on a large scale. This makes sense because that is where consumers are constantly facing ‘what is healthy for me’ decisions. “I believe that over the next five years, changes will outpace those of the past five years. We are already seeing an increase in requests from companies focusing on personalised nutrition. Larger retailers and food service companies, such as caterers and restaurants, are developing related activities as we speak.”

When consumers consider true value – what is truly important to me – nothing beats health. This provides supermarkets with the opportunity to create added value for their customers. “The benefit is that they no longer need to compete on the basis of flavour, convenience or price. Supermarkets consider health as a way of distinguishing themselves. Examples can be found in many countries. In the Netherlands, supermarket chain Jumbo developed the Foodcoach app, which they use to provide athletes with nutritional advice based on their individual performance and training schedule. Market leader Albert Heijn recently acquired the FoodFirst Network; a platform that gives personalised food advice to consumers with an explicit focus on those with specific challenges such as diabetes, high blood pressure or food allergies. In England, a lot of experiments are being conducted with in-store health tests and in the USA, today’s supermarkets are fitted with health centres allowing consumers to use personalised nutritional advice for their shopping list right away. A clear business case emerges for tomorrow’s retailer: creating a competitive edge by adding value for their customers while contributing to a healthier society. A win-win situation”.

How do we empower consumers to make better choices about their personal health?

Shake-out
“The greatest threat to personalised nutrition is for it to become a hype. For non-experts to embrace it and start making false claims”, Clabbers believes. Meanwhile, empowering consumers to make better decisions by objectifying their own health and the way in which food affects it, is the strength of personalised nutrition. “This also means that many gurus can be dismissed right off the bat. I expect a kind of shake-out in the supplement market as well. For a large number of supplements, no evidence of any direct effect can be provided. The same goes for a lot of products currently being marketed by the food industry, accompanied by appealing claims but with few measurable health benefits for the consumer. I foresee a reduced interest in the future.”   

Clabbers continues: “I believe that growth opportunities for the food industry exist at the interface between health and convenience. Highly processed foods have been generating a lot of negative attention, but I don’t expect convenience to become any less relevant in the years to come. Convenience foods will remain a growth segment, but wholesomeness is gaining in importance as well. This poses an excellent opportunity for all kinds of brands and companies to develop products that are both (measurably) healthy and convenient. That is where a true growth market is emerging.” 

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