I often find myself wondering “what difference would personalized nutrition make?” Even if you could tell someone what food is healthy specifically for their genetics or lifestyle, so what? People have known for decades to eat more fruits and vegetables to improve their health, yet most people aren’t doing it. Scientists are debating every day whether the concept of personalized nutrition is even feasible.
Despite this, it almost seems like a topic that nobody can get away from. Media headlines are touting it as the future of nutrition and new start-up companies are creating products claiming to deliver nutrition personalized to measurements taken from blood or stool samples.
However, when I attended the American Society of Nutrition’s annual meeting for 2019 in Baltimore, a session about watermelon juice gave me a reminder: personalized nutrition is exciting, feasible, and it’s coming.
Personalized nutrition is exciting
What if I told you that you could improve your health by drinking watermelon juice every day, but if your friend drank the juice every day, they’d get no benefit?
Watermelons are rich in lycopene, an antioxidant possibly linked to heart health and other benefits. A recent study from the University of Alabama showed that watermelon juice was effective at raising lycopene levels in blood, meaning it could be beneficial for health.
In the study, the watermelon juice increased lycopene levels in blood by an average of 7.3 (µmol/L), but the reason personalized nutrition is exciting is what you see when you look at how each individual participant responded to the juice.
There was a wild variation in how well the watermelon juice actually increased lycopene levels in the blood for different particiapnts. For some people, the juice increased lycopene levels by 26 (µmol/L), but for other participants there was no effect at all. The researchers were able to attribute this to variations in genetics between each individual.
Personalized nutrition will help us make dietary recommendations more efficient for each person
Dietitians have been doing personalized nutrition for years: recommending dietary changes based on a specific person’s need states (e.g. heart health, exercise) and behaviors. For example, for heart health, a dietitian might recommend to increase intake of colorful vegetables, whole grains, and fiber, and this would most likely be effective at improving heart health measures.
But what if a dietitian could recommend foods to choose that were twice as effective for that individual’s specific genetics? Instead of ‘eat more fiber’, it’s ‘eat more barley’? This is the future you can see when you look at how different people’s bodies responded to the lycopene in the watermelon juice. You can make dietary recommendations, or tailored foods or beverages, much more effective without requiring any more work on the consumer’s part. It’s likely that someone knowing how effective a treatment will be will make them more likely to adopt and continue healthy behaviors.
It’s not here yet
Despite many companies and products claiming to deliver personalized nutrition solutions, science is still a long ways off from providing a true solution. Libraries will need to be built that link how different genes or microbiomes respond to different foods and nutrients. This is underway, and with fields like metabolomics becoming more efficient, it could come sooner than we think.
Nathan Pratt, PhD, RD
Nathan Pratt, PhD, RD is a nutrition scientist passionate about helping people use science to lead better lives. He completed his doctoral studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where his research focused on weight management, nutrition labeling, and consumer behavior. He joined Kerry’s nutrition team in 2016 and is responsible for scientific communications, nutritionrelated innovation and guidance on product development.