- Individual consumers — including identical twins — have different responses to the same foods, according to new research from King's College London, Massachusetts General Hospital and nutritional science company Zoe. The results were recently presented at the American Society of Nutrition and the American Diabetes Association conferences, but have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.
- The researchers followed 1,100 adults in the U.S. and the U.K. for 14 days — including 240 pairs of twins. Their fat and exercise levels, blood glucose and gut microbiome diversity were measured in response to specific foods, and their sleep and exercise habits were tracked. The results showed a wide variation in blood responses to the same meals.
- Researchers said their findings show one-size-fits-all dietary guidelines are too simplistic and a personalized approach to nutrition will provide better long-term health benefits. Zoe, which funded the study, is developing a personalized consumer nutrition test, Time reported.
These study results could potentially impact how food products are labeled and marketed. Instead of new products being pitched to consumers in general, more items could be tailored to personalized diets and contain information factoring in individual biological responses.
Manufacturers might see opportunities for target marketing and specialization in this scenario, but it could also mean additional costs in order to differentiate how products are made and advertised. Nutritional labeling might need to change if information about consumer responses to glucose or microbiome diversity end up being added to product packaging. However, such individualized information may be necessary in order to bolster the chances of losing weight or maximizing health outcomes from making certain dietary choices, according to Tim Spector, a co-investigator on the study and scientific founder of Zoe.
Spector told Time that success in personalized dieting may have more to do with the microbiome than with genetics. The study showed identical twins had about 37% overlap in gut microbes compared to 35% for people who aren't related, which he said provides a clue about why they have different responses to the same foods.
Personalized nutrition isn't new and some food makers have already waded into the segment. As consumers are more interested in healthy eating, personalized nutrition is seen as an effective way to tackle health problems. Last year, Nestlé introduced a personalized nutrition program in Japan called "Wellness Ambassador" combining artificial intelligence, DNA testing and meal analysis to collect consumer data on diet and tailor food products to meet those specifications.
But these study results may also raise questions about the types of product labels that are helpful and those that aren't for personalized products. Consumers are more liable to pay attention to dietary guidelines if they're related to specific situations than general nutritional advice, research shows. So while it could be useful to have information about how foods might affect their personal blood sugar or cholesterol, it might be hard for some consumers to access it without adequate technology.
To respond to such issues, the researchers behind the study are using machine learning to analyze nutritional data and develop an at-home consumer nutrition test and app. They said such tools are meant to help consumers choose foods to enhance metabolism, limit weight and enhance overall health. That could help consumers understand how each food would work for them specifically.
More companies could be looking to personalized nutrition approaches in the future as a result of this study, and it will take time to see how people respond. Some consumers may feel their individual biological responses to foods should remain personal, while others would take any opportunity to achieve better health. Achieving a balance between personal privacy and personal health could be key, so researchers and manufacturers might want to bear that in mind moving forward.