Cracking Personalized Nutrition and the Microbiome through AI and Apps

Research Says…It Works

Though it’s early days in personal nutrition research, preliminary studies have shown that individuals are more likely to stick with personalized nutrition advice based on DNA, blood biomarkers and genotypes (a positive offshoot of our craving for the hyper-personalization of everything?). For example, a 42-week study of 100 Habit (now acquired by major personalized nutrition player Viome) users found that women lost an average of eight pounds and men an average of 12. Weight loss is not the central goal, health and wellness are, but, as Habit’s Grimmer says: “When people eat in harmony to their body, a natural result is weight loss.” The same study showed a positive increase in the consumption of nutritious foods and a reduction in those things many of us can do without: sugar, trans fats and salt.

Another US-based personalized nutrition company, InsideTracker, has published a landmark, peer-reviewed paper aggregating data from more than 1,000 consumers. The results were impressive: personalized nutrition recommendations optimized key markers of health, including blood sugar, cholesterol and inflammation. Harvard geneticist David Sinclair, co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging, chairman of the InsideTracker scientific advisory board, and a co-author of the paper, said: “I can imagine people looking back one day wondering how was it possible that people modified their diet blind to what was going on inside, and only went to their doctors once a year for a checkup or after they became sick.”

This is fast-moving science that is developing and improving in real time. And, because some first-movers moved a little too fast to put a stake in the ground without providing any real guidance on what personalized genome analysis means to the end user, there has been some backlash. In fact, one of the most popular genetic testing companies out there, 23andMe, ran into trouble with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for giving consumers health-related predictions without any guidance or interpretation. However, after working closely with the FDA, 23andMe has been approved to report on an increased risk for 10 genetically identifiable diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Epigenetic expert Dr. Pelletier warns that DNA testing is only one piece of the complex personalized nutrition puzzle: “There are four components necessary to make this kind of genetic analysis work: genome tests from the likes of 23andMe offer up probability statistics based on genes; complete blood chemistry reports show how an individual’s biology reacts to foods; a gut microbiome (or intestinal tract) analysis to show how the body processes nutrients; and, perhaps most importantly, a health coach to help you interpret what it all means.”

Pelletier points out that the most relevant component to personalization likely resides in our microbiome. However, we still know very little about the trillion of cells residing in the intestinal tract—or the exact interaction they have with the receptors in our brains and hearts. The good news is that technology and science are working at breakneck speed, and the mysteries of the microbiome will likely be solved in the next 5–10 years.

In short, personal nutrition can only make good on its promise if we have a whole picture of our biology, including a “prescription” of actionable steps for achieving our best, most well selves. The exciting news is that solutions are quickly moving that way…and more advanced ones are on the horizon.

Technology, AI and Apps

All the personalized nutrition companies come with their own smartphone apps to help consumers manage their nutritional data, talk to one another, access recipes or fitness coaches, and, of course, track their own personal results.

Other technology to aid in personalization is the recently released Pinto app, which can analyze photos of meals or products to offer up nutritional information to make it easier to understand what’s going into your body. The app uses artificial intelligence to assess how well a meal or a product fulfills an individual’s specific nutrition plan—whether it’s a diet you’re following or allergens you want to avoid. Another app to help with your personalized diet is Calorie Mama AI—just snap a photo of the food you’re eating, and the app will let you know the calorie count and nutritional value. Even governments are getting in on helping consumers understand what it is they are eating. Britain’s National Health Service Change4Life food scanner looks at labels to tell users sugar, salt and saturated fat levels.

Lumen is a new device and app that focuses on hacking your metabolism in exchange for your breath. Lumen uses a CO2 sensor and flow meter to determine how your body is burning fuel and then an app that it says will take the guesswork out of your personal nutrition.

It’s rumored that Google is continuing its foray into health and wellness with a new personal coaching program in the works. The concept is probably a no-brainer given all the data it has at its fingertips: AI will be used to recommend workout routines, meal plans and other wellness advice.

Re-evaluating Nutritional Values

Nestle has already launched the “Nestle Wellness Ambassador” program in Japan, a personalized nutrition supplement program that prescribes capsules of nutrient-rich teas and smoothies to its 100,000 users.

With all the evidence telling us that the recommended daily allowance of nutrients is completely individualized—despite what governments might require food companies to put on their labels—there is a need to know more about what exactly works for our bodies. Instead of a whole dietary and physical activity overhaul, some solutions look more toward making sure your body is getting the nutrients it needs.

Nestle (not necessarily a company associated with nutritional values) has been working on its “Nestle Wellness Ambassador” program for a couple of years. The program combines DNA and blood testing with an Instagram-like component to recommend specially formulated supplements. Users send photos of their food and, with the help of artificial intelligence (AI), consumers are prescribed capsules for nutrient-rich teas or smoothies that are very similar to those used in Nestle’s Nespresso machines. There are already 100,000 users in Japan.

Gatorade is also getting into the game with personalized sports hydration. Using a chip-enabled skin patch, the professional-level Gx “smart” bottle measures and tracks an athlete’s hydration (including sweat!) to deliver just the right fuel and nutrients.

Baze is a California-based company that is focused on personalized vitamins. Its website says, “9 out of 10 Americans are deficient in at least one essential nutrient. Marketed to enthusiastic food tribe (such as, gluten-free, locavores and raw) members who might worry that they don’t get a balanced diet, Baze takes baseline tests and sends consumers what they need, retesting every three months.

Forecasting the Future

    • Unriddling the byzantine biology of the individual microbiome to create personalized nutrition has felt at a tipping point for years. It’s one monumental challenge, and some big start-ups have failed in recent months. But research just keeps showing that people react differently to the same foods—especially blood-glucose responses. This new research will continue to drive investment and entirely new models. For instance, the Mayo Clinic and Johnson & Johnson are investing big in start-ups combining microbiome analysis with digital tracking. Since 2014, 100 microbiome companies have raised $3.3 billion (CB Insights). The setbacks in the space are actually seen as opportunities.
    • Start-ups such as US-based Viome and Israel’s DayTwo (Israel is a global leader in personalized nutrition medicine/tech) are seeing promising results harnessing microbiome data. Key trends, illustrated by companies such as DayTwo and Vivante Health, are using phone apps to track symptoms/responses from food eaten in real-time—and are also focusing specifically on people with chronic conditions such as diabetes and IBS.
    • More experts agree that the future is pulling in far more data (microbiome, glucose responses, genetics, sleep, activity, stress levels and medications) taken from wearables such as smartwatches—which combined with advanced algorithms from AI—would mean real breakthroughs. That would allow a new era of digital health coaches that do deep, constant learning about your food intake and health to provide truly custom diet recommendations.

This is an excerpt from the “Nutrition Gets Very Personalized” trend in the 2019 Global Wellness Trends Report.

This is an excerpt from the TRENDIUM, a bi-weekly communication exploring the wellness trends identified in the Global Wellness Trends Reports.

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