This idea was until fairly recently represented mostly by questionnaires used by dietary supplement manufacturers and retailers that sought to match consumers’ ‘goals’ with certain products. The questionnaires gathered crude biometric data such as height and weight, blood pressure, body fat percentage and so forth.
These approaches were not without some merit. They did help consumers through the sometimes confusing buying process.
Another way in which the supplement industry could be said to have embraced personalized nutrition is in the way many of the products were sold in the early days and still are today. Natural channel retailers with knowledgable sales staffs have certainly steered many a consumer toward a given product or suite of products based on what that consumer told them. In this way the process was both personal and personalized.
And reaching even further back, a significant portion of the industry can trace its roots to herbal medicine practitioners. These practices were often based on one of the traditional medicine systems such as Ayurveda or TCM. The formulas used in these systems were to some degree tailored to an individual and his or her diagnosis. In this way it was really more personalized medicine—albeit not of the allopathic sort—rather than personalized nutrition.
The key in all of this in my view is how well it worked for the consumer. There is a lot of anecdotal and testimonial type evidence for the efficacy of each of these approaches. But there is a dearth of evidence of the randomized, placebo controlled sort.
Interesting. Exciting. But does it work?
My goal here is not to delve into what’s the best way to study nutrition, nor to argue whether a history of use, as in the traditional medicine systems, is necessarily a lesser standard of evidence than that of Western style clincal trials.
Rather, it’s to get at how these ideas are couched for consumers. Is there evidence that consumers who chose their supplements via a questionnaire type platform have better health outcomes than those who chose supplements based on a raw condition specific grouping (as in, a consumer who’s having trouble sleeping gravitates toward the healthy sleep products and chooses one of those)? I think that would be a very hard case to make.
Now, though, we are starting to get hard evidence about personalized nutrition. Genetic studies have pointed toward how individuals respond to nutritional interventions. Microbiome research is starting to show how the metabolites that arise from these interventions affect systems in the body. Paired with massive increases in computing power, these advances hold out the promise of being to make some predictions with fair accuracy about how certain interventions might work.
Making a hard sell even harder
This is all very exciting stuff. The danger in my view is that this information could be misused by some of the lesser lights in the industry. Borrowed science is the bane of this business, and what might be the outcome of borrowing science as complex as this? This isn’t after all just saying, hey, I’ve got a botanical ingredient with the same name as what appears in all of these studies I’m citing, even though I may know in my heart of hearts it’s not really an equivalent product.
Already some rigorous personalized medicine approaches have fallen on hard times. Arrivale was a personalized wellness offering that sought to give consumers a highly detailed look at their biomarkers as a roadmap toward optimum health. Despite a mountain of science backing the approach, it proved too costly for consumers. Earlier this year the company abruptly pulled the plug on its consumer offering.
This company’s failure was due to cost, not performance. But if a number of companies with slovenly ethics get involved, where will that leave companies like Arrivale? If it’s as yet so hard to sell the real science, how much harder will it be if companies without a scientifically valid approach start slinging claims around about how their products represent the best personalized nutrition has to offer?
Personalized Nutrition webinar
On Nov. 12 at 11:30 AM Central time NutraIngredients-USA will host a FREE webinar. Experts Diana Morgan of Care/of, Rony Sellam of Segerra (Inside Tracker) and Nathan Price, PhD of the Institute of Systems Biology will delve into the opportunities and pitfalls in this promising sector. Visit the event website to sign up for the FREE event.