Food as a medicine – the opportunity of DNA-based personalised nutrition

We know food has an impact on our health. It can cause or prevent illnesses. But nowadays consumers are inundated with advice on what is bad and what is good for us. Advice that is often confusing and contradicting.

Are asparagus fuelling cancer? How many eggs should you eat for breakfast? Is saturated fat ok or not? The answers are not always as straightforward and what is right for you might not be right for me.

Our individual genes and gut bacteria play a critical role in how we process and react to food and nutrients. Knowledge in this domain is evolving rapidly and recent technological advancements mean we are now able to read and monitor DNA, blood and microbiomes. This is opening the way for personalised nutrition. But how big is this opportunity for businesses and society and how far are we from being able to capture it?

Uniquely you

The way you process and react to food is complex. It is influenced by your genetic make-up and the unique composition of the trillions of bacteria in your gut (microbiome). These variations in genes and microbes explain some of the inconsistencies we see between individuals in their response to food. They explain why certain people with similar dietary patterns gain weight, or develop diseases, where others do not. And the more we know, the more likely we can target interventions with tailored eating plans based on our unique genotype or genetic make-up.

The opportunity for business and society

Imagine a personalised diet and meal plan, configured to your dietary and digestive needs based on your DNA profile, derived from a DIY home test kit, delivered through a weekly subscription at your doorstep. Personalised nutrition is creating substantial opportunities for food manufacturers and retailers to offer new services, increase their relevance and deliver differentiated experiences.

Most of the companies trying to capitalise on the opportunity, such as DNAFit, Helix, Australian-based Nutrigenomix and Habit, offer DNA analyses and advice, but some expand into additional products and services. Habit, owned by food manufacturer Campbell’s, is an example where DNA-based knowledge is coupled with meal services. This allows Campbell’s to vertically integrate whilst increasing its relevance to consumers. More food businesses are looking to jump on the trend and growth is expected to continue. Mass consumption will give way to mass personalisation.

Barriers are lowering with the cost of personal DNA test kits rapidly dropping making the whole process more affordable than ever. Nowadays, the process is highly convenient as users conduct DIY tests at home with online access to detailed results. And we are increasingly more connected – with each other and with our products – leading to new opportunities and innovative ways of engagement for food companies and retailers.

The most significant opportunity however is for our society. Food can act as a medicine and can substantially reduce the healthcare costs associated with dietary-related diseases. For example, treating chronic conditions resulting from obesity accounts for about 7% of the total health expenditure, costing the Australian economy $8.6 billion each year[1]. Globally, this picture is no different with the worldwide prevalence of obesity having nearly tripled between 1975 and 2016[2]. The World Economic Forum[3] has estimated that by 2039, the overweight population could be reduced by as much as 25-55 million people globally as a result of nutrigenics-based dietary choices. A significant social and economic benefit.

Capturing the potential

Personalised, precision nutrition has the potential to revolutionise the healthcare system and significantly improve the quality of our lives. Although we are getting closer to this reality, some doubt exist that we will ever be able to reach that nirvana. Precision nutrition suggests it is possible to have sufficient quantitative understanding about the complex relationships between food components and the individual, their food consumption and their phenotype, which is at the heart of prevailing scepticism[4]. We are not quite there yet, and the maturity of both the science and service offerings is still developing, but the potential value is significant and worth our attention.

Capturing the full opportunity will require deliberate investments from both the food and education sector and it will need much tighter regulations to control quality and protect consumers’ health and data. But set up well, this could be a game changer in the emotional connection we have with our food, and could boost the relationship food brands and retailers have with consumers. After all, what could be more personal than something made ‘just for you’?

Note: This blog is part of our series that explores the Future of Food. Topics that have been discussed previously include food tech, obesity, water sustainability, food waste and 3D printed food.

Supporting footnotes

[1] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2017, A picture of overweight and obesity in Australia 2017

[2] World Health Organisation, 18 February 2018, Obesity and overweight factsheet

[3] World Economic Forum, Innovation with a Purpose, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Innovation_with_a_Purpose_VF-reduced.pdf

[4] The BMJ, 13 June 2018, Personalised nutrition and health – Science and Politics of Nutrition, Jose Ordovas


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