In 2030 half of all adults in the world would be overweight or obese and, as a result, more prone to diseases like diabetes. Of course, if no actions are taken to prevent it. But what can and should be done? The experts from Wageningen University & Research say that what is most important is the change of the environment in which people make their food choices and the availability of personalized nutrition advice. That is why the development of individualized healthy food patterns on a large scale is what Personalised Nutrition & Health programme (an initiative of TNO and Wageningen University & Research) is working on. The program is run in the form of the public-private partnership, which already includes companies like Albert Heijn, Philips or Friesland Campina and is open to new partners involved in the (future) value chain of personalized nutrition.
The Dutch Agri Food Week in Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo featured a lecture from TNO on the Personalized Nutrition & Health programme. As the speaker, Arjen Daane, Research Director Market Intelligence at Wageningen University & Research said: “Google, Amazon and other big tech companies in the world see the idea of personalised nutrition as a new “billion dollar” idea and focus on it as a way to extend their business. Personalised nutrition is a very interesting mix: on the one hand it’s a very big scientific topic but on the other hand, there is lots of business potential involved as well.”
How does Personalized nutrition work? Smartphones can register all kinds of things – the number of steps you take, the duration of your physical exercises and much more. Personal gadgets designed to monitor blood pressure, heart rate or check the level of glucose in one’s blood are widely available. The popularity of wearables like Apple watch, which can provide serious health monitoring, is growing fast. Big data coming from these devices combined with the design of the algorithms result in the possibility of giving personalised nutrition advice. “After taking the measurements of your body and its functions the personalized nutrition algorithm can “decide” if you need to have cauliflowers today or if you should eat less meat. And here comes the part of Wageningen University – they design the algorithms,” said Wageningen University speaker, Arjen Daane.
Which parameters should be taken into account to provide accurate personalised nutrition advice? “Personalized nutrition is not only about eating: it comes at all levels – buying the food, preparing it, measuring food intake,” said Daane. Some components of the personalized nutrition program are more challenging than the others. “Data modelling might be hard because of the difference of soil where the food production has grown. For example, tomatoes in the greenhouse and in the open fields are different and so is the amount of nutrients in them, which might affect the effectiveness of the personalized advice that you are getting,” said Daane.
The aspect of privacy also enters the picture. “Not everybody wants to share personal information, so we are getting into this privacy issue. Besides, sometimes people are very offended if you give them a personal advice on the internet,” said Arjen Daane. “How acceptable is the personalised nutrition to different groups of people? The elderly is one of the target groups of our research, but they are not used to iPhones or iPads. So how do we give them the information? And how do they accept it?”
The Personalised Nutrition & Health programme started in 2016 having received the topsector Agri & Food subsidies for its societal impact, economic importance for the private sector and its innovative concept. Nowadays Personalized nutrition and Health program has various partners from the private sector: technology companies, ICT, e-health parties (like dokter.nl), employers (because the social context determines lots of effectiveness of personalized nutrition) and retail. What is the role of science in this partnership? “The big tech companies of the world are interested in personalised nutrition but do you really trust the nutrition advice that Amazon is giving you? For example, you are advised to eat a mango and the next thing on your screen might be an advertisement for mangos that you can order on Amazon,” said Arjen Daane. “Are we giving the consumer the best option or are we trying to make the profit? That’s why, I think, science should be involved in personalised nutrition. We should have an independent Personalised Nutrition & Health scientific base accessible to everybody without luring one into buying something. On the other hand, in the program we need to have businesses as well: they will learn from the programme and they will bring in their knowledge, their tools and the data that they have already collected. We are trying to work on personalised nutrition as much as possible not in the laboratory context but in people’s homes, in the living environment. It should be a co-innovation trajectory, and even if the scientists might move forward really slowly sometimes doing their research for many years, personalised nutrition still has to be adopted by the industries and to be brought to all of the consumers.”