Keep the Person in Personal Nutrition

Thought Leadership


Josh Anthony

Last month, the National Academies of Science Engineering and Medicine Food Forum hosted a workshop “Challenges and Opportunities for Precision and Personalized Nutrition” where I posed the question: how does a consumer’s perception of health benefits inform their approach to managing their health through food?

Among a broad range of experts, we agreed – there is no definitive answer because of the vastly different opinions and definitions of what “health” means.

For food and nutrition companies this may suggest personalized nutrition systems are a dead end. However, additional consumer insight and understanding starts to paint a much different picture – one of opportunity.

When building personalized nutrition product strategy, most target health and wellness consumers can be segmented by their subjective or objective approaches to personalization – including their needs, motivations and trusted sources of health-related information, as first described by New Nutrition Business in their 2017 key trends in food, nutrition and health report. To understand opportunities for innovation, we must first understand these two types of personal nutrition consumers.

Subjective Personalization Consumer Tribes

Subjective personalization consumers are a large group of health and wellness focused people who seek a more personalized approach to managing their health through food – by the best estimations, they make up potentially 80-90% of Health & Wellness consumers. They are categorized by self-selection into one or more diet tribes linked to a desired end benefit - like trying a gluten-free diet because they believe it will help them with digestive health or to avoid brain fog; however, their choices are not necessarily based on counsel from experts or objective measures of health - like someone who has been diagnosed with celiac disease).

The subjective personalization consumer may make their choices based on information (or misinformation) from influencers touting their own success stories. This can lead to frustration when they do not have similar results—often creating a cascade of frustration as they try one program and then the next, always searching for solutions that may not align to their real needs.  

This diet flipping happens when subjective consumers focus on what they perceive as their most pressing need. They might try a low carbohydrate diet to quickly lose weight, switch to a fruit and veggie diet for heart health and then increase their meat and protein intake when focused on gaining muscle mass. And, so the cycle continues, oftentimes resulting in consumers giving up on their nutrition goals.

Many food companies recognize and respond to these diet trends by creating food innovations that align to one or more diet tribes. These products are designed to make sure the negatives are limited or removed, for example gluten-free, dairy-free, or keto-friendly products. However, while these products may help provide options consistent with the consumer’s diet tribe, they can create other problems. For example, gluten-free food is often low in fiber and may be lacking other nutrients found in enriched wheat flour such as iron, B vitamins and calcium. Dairy-free foods may be lacking in protein, calcium or vitamin D.  Keto-friendly foods may be lower in fiber or potassium.

We need to meet these people where they are, but with evidence-based solutions. Rather than rushing trendy, short-term innovations to market, food companies can embrace the challenges and problems these consumers face and offer more evidence-based and comprehensive solutions that support the food trend and address potential nutrition gaps or opportunities that can often occur when a consumer self-selects into one or more diet tribes. Furthermore, it’s important to understand the benefit drivers that brought the individual into the tribe in the first place. Real product differentiation will come from delivering solutions that not only remove the negative ingredients and restore positive nutrition, but also provide the functionality that delivers a real benefit to the consumer.

These shifts can differentiate a company’s innovation and attract subjective personalization consumers to more evidence-based programs that align to the popular trends while being structured to meet both immediate and longer-term health needs. I’m particularly excited about the opportunities here as Nlumn is working with several of our clients to tailor their product pipeline to bring meaningful benefits to this large consumer group.

Objective Personalization Consumers

About 10-20 percent of health and wellness consumers take a more objective personalization approach to their personalized nutrition—one based on data and technology. They also have clear health and functional goals, but in general, are more interested in the science behind nutrition and want to understand and track their progress based on data points. Overall, these individuals tend to be:

  • Highly motivated and goal-oriented
  • Digitally savvy data trackers who are seeking objective advice based on personalized data
  • Willing and able to follow prescriptive lifestyle advice
  • Prepared to manage and act on data and information
  • More educated and have a higher socio-economic status

These individuals seek out and have the best success with personalized nutrition programs. However, their expectations are often ahead of realistic scientific support. This is because the benefits they are seeking are also unique and may range from well-studied areas with more robust markers of health like metabolic health or cardiovascular health to benefits with less clear clinical measures, markers and dietary advice like mental performance, stress management or all-day energy.

There is no doubt that science and data are critical to establishing the credibility of personal nutrition systems, and the programs must deliver on health and functional benefits. However, the objective consumer’s highly personal health perceptions also must be factored into the system. This can also be further complicated when companies make benefit claims that are not scientifically supported which can erode consumer confidence in the potential for personalized nutrition.

While the objective personalization consumer segment is still relatively small, the segment is rapidly growing and overall market potential is significant. However, many companies trying to compete in the objective personalization ecosystem today are leading with their technology and losing sight of why people eat. Instead, the first step should be to understand the consumer’s key motivators and focus on how the product benefits align to their perceived needs.

To truly answer the question – how does a consumer’s perception of health benefits inform their approach to managing their health through food – we must listen more to consumers, understand their short and long-term needs and meet them where they are. This is the critical first step to achieving a definitive answer. Then we can evolve perceptions to be grounded in evidence-based results.

For those interested in the full conference discussion, you can view my presentation here.

At Nlumn, we are working with companies to align their product strategy to a more focused, evidence-based personalized nutrition model. While some in the industry are leaning into precision nutrition trends, we believe the future is personal. One that fits the needs of both subjective and objective consumers.

In our next post, we will outline some specific tips for companies who want to deliver on the needs of the objective personalization consumer…

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