Special Edition: Personalized Nutrition

Research backs personalized nutrition process, even if data on customized products lacks, expert says

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

Research backs personalized nutrition process, even if data on customized products lacks, expert says
While personalized nutrition proponents like to push the benefits of the approach, there is little research that backs the notion that products customized for individual consumers lead to better health outcomes than do more generic formulas. But that misses the point, said one expert.

One of the promises held out by personalized nutrition proponents is that not only can recommendations for individual end users, but with modern manufacturing techniques products could be, too.

Different approaches to deliver personalization

Some basic versions of this approach would be to recommend, say, one of three different multivitamins in a marketer’s inventory based on the answers to a questionnaire. A step up from that is the approach taken by Roehr Pharmaceuticals in Miami, FL. This company offers formulas built around so-called ‘micro tabs,’ which are small lots of bioactives encapsulated in beadlets about the size of half of a rice grain. Multiple ingredients can be combined in one bottle and dosed out via a scoop. Dosing can be adjusted based on body size and health goals.

Even more sophisticated approaches might rely on more intricate data from the consumer.  This could include biometric, genomic and microbiome testing results, all in an effort to match the end user with the perfect product for him or her. At least one company has dabbled in what it calls ‘3D printing’ of supplements​ to achieve this Nth degree of customization.

In a way, this is nothing new in herbal medicine. Herbal practitioners have practiced this approach for decades or centuries. While TCM formulas, for example, are built along certain principles, the practitioner could adjust them based upon what was observed in the patient.

But that traditional practice notwithstanding, is there any evidence that a modern supplement with, say, 750 mg of a given bioactive instead of 500 mg, a decision perhaps based on personal test results, will do a better job for a given consumer?

Data doesn’t yet support customized products

Not much, said Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, who is a research professor and Professor Emeritus in the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Blumberg has a career’s worth of nutrition research under his belt. He has conducted studies on nutrient levels in the general population so he’s in a good position to know what works and what doesn’t​, and when he doesn’t have enough data to make that determination.

Prof Jeffrey Blumberg

And this is one of those cases. If personalization is taken to this extreme, with products customized for individual consumers, each test case would have a sample size of one. So there is would be no validated way to say that consumer’s health outcome was better than it would have been with an off-the-shelf type of product.

“There isn’t much evidence because companies haven’t done the research to validate this approach,” ​he said.

What there is definitive backing for, is for the efficacy of the approach as a system of health care, Blumberg said.

“When you go to see your doctor and he does a blood test, he looks at your eyeballs and prods you and so forth and he prescribes something, that’s ‘personalized medicine,’”​ Blumenthal said.

“When you start adding genomic data and other information, now you are building a more scalable, automated way of doing it. And just as there are good doctors and doctors who don’t help you as much, there are personalized nutrition companies out there who I think really help consumers and others not so much,”​ he said.

Validating the process, not the products

Blumberg said recent research he had done for personalized nutrition firm InsideTracker illustrates how the approach could be validated in the future.  In a paper published earlier this month in Scientific Reports​, Blumberg and his coauthors explored how using the company’s proprietary online platform altered biomarkers in the people using it​.

Inside Tracker 2018 image
Image: InsideTracker

The researchers found that for people who used the company’s wellness tool, there was a trend toward normalcy for those subjects whose values were out of that range to start.

“On at least some of the metrics we were looking at, like fasting glucose levels, those did get better,” ​Blumberg said.

So the goal would be to focus on the overall outcome of acting on the recommendations that arise from the collection of data, rather than trying to parse out whether customized products are significantly better than standard ones, Blumberg said.

“Companies could show how their advice changes your behavior.  They stimulated you to engage in a proactive health behavior that you wouldn’t have otherwise,”​ he said.

Inevitable shift toward diets based on personal data

Blumberg said the trend toward personalized nutrition recommendations is something that has been brewing for a long time.  Despite the reservations that might be raised about how certain questionnaires are set up (It turns out EVERYONE needs these three supplements I just happen to be selling!), this is an almost inevitable shift in the market.

“The only reason we didn’t do this earlier is that we didn’t have the tools and the science to do it,” ​Blumberg said. “We have dietary recommendations that are based on population averages.  The RDAs and others—they aren’t meant specifically for you or for me.”

“The science on this is really just getting started.  Now as more of this gets done incorporating the genomic data the more we are going to know how to do it.  We will have more validated markers like 25 hydroxyvitamin D, and will be able to supply detailed information that you are never going to get from an RDA,” ​he added.

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