28 Dec 2018 --- Consumers are more discerning when it comes to their nutrition than ever before. With personalized nutrition moving beyond just tailored diets and wearable technology giving us more insight into personal health KPIs, we are arguably entering the age of the empowered consumer. Consumers are seeking to take control of their health through preventative means, and this is having an impact on the gray area between food and pharma. The consumer healthcare landscape has seen major shifts over 2018, as exemplified by this week’s announcement of a GSK-Pfizer Joint Venture. At the same time, the growing role for nutrigenomics as a science means that ever smaller demographic groups are being targeted, while technologies that include AI and 3D printing make customization even more prevalent.
Innova Market Insights has listed “Eating for Me” as its number 6 top trend for 2019, reflecting the growing demand for individualized nutritional options. These are highly diverse times with increasingly customized products increasingly customized to an individual’s needs. Advances in technology allow for greater diversification. Consumers are adopting nutritional patterns based on health and ethical criteria. The notion of “food that works for me” has only intensified with an increasing array of options becoming available.
Technologies that range from wearable fitness trackers to DNA and microbiome testing will drive demand for nutrition that has been tailored for a specific individual.
The consumer focus on taking control of one’s health and nutritional status was one of the key pillars underpinning the announced GSK-Pfizer Joint Venture.
“Consumer healthcare is a great business to be in. It is clear the trends are in our favor with people taking more control of their own health, an aging population and growing emerging middle class,” explains Brian McNamara, CEO, GSK Consumer Healthcare, during the press call on Wednesday. “There is still a lot of opportunity to drive growth by innovating and delivering on unmet consumer needs. The combination of GSK and Pfizer consumer healthcare brings together two highly complementary portfolios into a world-leading company with significant scale.”
Shrinking consumer basesThe influence of this personalization on product development is clear, as manufacturers look to meet the needs of relatively small consumer bases. For example, strong growth has been reported in the percentage of new food & beverage launches with selected dietary claims (Global, 2017 vs. 2016). Over this period, a 76 percent rise was reported in “keto” product launches (from a small base), a 32 percent rise in “paleo,” a 28 percent rise in “plant-based,” 17 percent growth in “high in protein” and 14 percent growth in “vegan.”
Click to EnlargeGenetic testingDirect-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing (GT) is becoming increasingly popular, with myriad companies such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe, marketing genetic “insights” into ancestry and physical attributes.
Despite concerns from healthcare professionals, government authorities and patient advocate groups about the lack of accuracy in providing test results, the DTC GT hype is showing no signs of slowing down. Dramatic decreases in sequencing costs are making genetic testing accessible to the average consumer. This consumer hype has been reflected by the 23andMe website announcement in 2017 that it has genotyped more than two million customers.
Clinical genetic testing commercial interest, meanwhile, has grown significantly over the last few decades. After several years of regulatory challenges, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved marketing to the general public of tests for ten diseases that have genetic risk factors.
The microbiome is keyThe demand for personalized advice has quickly met with another key area of health interest: the microbiome.
“Microbiome testing that allows you to understand what microbiome exists in your gut at the strain level, how active they are and, most importantly, what your microbes are producing, it is the only way to get to precise and personalized nutrition. You need to make sure that you are not conned into doing microbiome testing based on 16s sequencing but look for testing that does meta-transcriptomics,” says Naveen Jain, Founder of microbiome testing company Viome.
Ranjan Sinha, Co-Founder & CEO at 3TandAI, also sees huge potential for the gut microbiome and gene sequencing in empowering consumers. “The plummeting cost of gut biome and gene sequencing will empower consumers with their bio-individuality, make them realize that almonds are not everyone’s superfood or kale can be a significant health risk for a pre-diabetic based on their gut biome composition. They will demand personalized food and nutrition solutions to meet their personal needs based on their body biology,” says Sinha, whose company seeks to offer individualized nutrition advice based on a person’s DNA and microbiome.
With the rise of personalized nutrition and the growing interest in gut health has come an array of personalized gut testing services. But despite the popularity of the phrase, there is still ample space for development in terms of bringing personalized options to a wider consumer base in an affordable and scientifically-sound way. In this space, health solutions company Carbiotix is paving the way by offering low cost, personalized gut testing services (starting at €19 (US$21.6) a month) and personalized soluble fiber supplements.
Another example is the Finnish company GutGuide, which seeks to offer reasonably-priced, patient-specific treatment and supplementation to a variety of afflictions connected to the gut, based on the company’s research into oral and gut microbiota. The role of a good functioning microbiota in skin health will be the next platform for the technology
Scientific hurdlesAlthough industry experts seem to be in agreement on the enormity of growth potential existing for personalized nutrition options, there are still some key challenges ahead.
Naveen Jain, Founder of Viome. “The largest hurdle is underpinning it with science. Nutrition is terribly weak as a science (certainly in relation to the other sciences), mainly relying on observational studies. Proper studies would be too costly. However, the potential for smartphones to vastly reduce the cost of such studies is now becoming a real possibility, so proper science is likely to emerge in the not too distant future,” says Rozen. “Since nutrition itself is relatively lacking, a scientific underpinning, personalized nutrition is even more lacking.”
Jain similarly points to gaps in the current technological capabilities to understand the human body. “Technology that will unlock our understandings of the functioning of our body at the molecular level has been missing so we were left to trial and error. This is the reason we see new fad diets emerge every few years,” he notes. “Fortunately, RNA sequencing (meta-transcriptomics analysis) and machine learning are now becoming affordable for us to be able to see what’s happening inside our body and what nutrition is needed to stay healthy and disease free. This science is still in its infancy and will only get better as more and more people do the test to get personalized nutritional recommendations because access to more data makes artificial intelligence more and more precise,” Jain concludes.
What’s next?As 2019 kicks off, the industry is likely to see increasing demand for more personalized offerings, but at the same time, both consumers and companies will need to face up to the challenges that personalized services bring in terms of costs, precision and regulatory confinements. The complete digitization and analysis of each individual’s nutritional status and needs may be within arm’s reach, but these will need to be embedded in proper science and support services as the risk of an entirely new regulatory and ethical minefield presents itself.
By Lucy Gunn with additional reporting by Robin Wyers.
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