Foods that are adapted to the different needs which people have throughout their lives, or in unique situations, are in short supply in today's food markets. Developing of these such products is important from the perspective of health, quality of life and on a socioeconomic level.
Over the past few decades, we have seen a strong trend towards more personalised or customised products and service offerings. While we would previously buy the finished car that best suited our needs, today car dealers offer the opportunity to design a new car according to our own wishes and needs. We tailor our computers, laptops or tablets – and especially our mobile phones – according to our own preferences. With increased medical knowledge, a number of treatments and medications are increasingly tailor-made for targeted and more effective treatment.
New technology provides us with easier access to knowledge, which we use to improve our quality of life by being able to make the right choices in different situations in life. Health and welfare are topics that many are strongly concerned about and greatly affect our choices. Websites, blogs and the media have a strong focus on physical activity and healthy diets.
From a preventive perspective, the focus on the relationship between our diet, physical activity and health plays a key part. The research literature on certain nutrients’ health benefits and the relationship between health and physical activity is vast. A variety of dietary products, cookbooks and diets with promises of better health are available on the market. However, the level of documentation for such products varies, and has a more general application which does not take individual needs into account.
Now we observe an increasing focus on diets that are adapted to specific groups or individuals, and it has become more common to speak of personalised food and dishes. The scientific community has a strong focus on developing good solutions with a preventive effect which will help us achieve better health over the long run. Research programmes such as HelseVel and Horizon 2020, funded by the Research Council of Norway (NFR) and the EU respectively, support this research into personalised food, nutrition and meals.
Nutrigenomics was first described by Peregrin in 2001, and has since been described as a personalised diet designed and adapted to individuals based on their genome and genetic variations. Stewart-Knox et al. have described a personalised nutrition as a “healthy dietary recommendation tailored to the health status, lifestyle, and/or the genetic information of an individual”. The latter argue that personalised food should be based on more than just genetic variations and adopt a more holistic perspective.
Personalized food is relevant to us all
What we eat and how we eat can be the result of several factors, such as culture, tradition, ethnicity, religion and not least what is available where we live. In addition, our food and eating habits are affected by the knowledge we acquire through the media. Trends towards vegetarian and allergen-free food are perhaps the result of an increasing focus on healthy food to achieving better health.
Malnutrition represents a major health problem in the world with an increasing strain on each country’s health budget. For the elderly and people with impaired general health due to illness and medical treatments it can be particularly challenging to provide the body with proper nutrition. That is the reason why a lot of research is now being done to develop food and food products tailored for an ageing population. The scientific literature refers to a number of factors that can affect food intake and that in turn can lead to undesirable effects such as obesity or malnutrition. Physiological, social and health-related conditions can impact a person’s eating abilities, meal experience and appetite.
Being able to prepare food, or being able to eat, depends on a number of physiological conditions. Impaired muscular activity will inhibit the ability to cook. Swallowing problems may occur if muscles in the mouth and throat are inhibited. The production of saliva and enzymes is a prerequisite for food to be digested so that nutrients can be absorbed.
Age and disease can lead to changes in such regular physiological processes and result in decreased eating abilities. It would then be possible to adapt the texture and nutritional composition of the food according to the needs of specific groups of people.
An important part of the meal experience is being able to dine with others. Many people will find that their social networks shrink as they get very old or that illness limits their ability to socialise. Loneliness, depression and stigmatisation all have an impact on a person’s appetite and eating habits, which will increase the risk of malnutrition. A Norwegian survey of elderly people receiving home care shows that 46 per cent were malnourished or at nutritional risk.
personalised food and meals combined with customised care can contribute to improving their appetite and dining experiences. In addition to public home care services, an increasing number of companies are also offering various home care services such as meal services.
Disease and the treatment of disease affects people to different degrees and in different ways depending on the individual’s disease, prognosis and the stage of life they are in. Illness will commonly affect a person’s eating pattern, which can lead to changes in their nutritional status.
Loss of key sensory abilities related to taste and smell as well as mouth dryness is often seen in people who have undergone cancer treatment. For this group, a major challenge for maintaining a good nutritional status is that there are no food products available that have been adapted to this group. Stroke and some disabilities can also lead to decreased eating skills and reduced food intake.
Consumer knowledge on the relationship between food and health has been improved, not least through effective information campaigns by the authorities. In recent years, the increased focus on the relationship between physical activity and health benefits has provided fertile grounds for private gyms. Optimal exercise and a personalised diet have become an important part in ensuring a good quality of life for many people. The food industry is motivated by consumers’ thirst for knowledge, and need to strengthen their own expertise in food, health and nutrition to be able to satisfy consumer demands.
An increasing proportion of the health budgets in EU member states is spent on the prevention and treatment of diseases linked to poor nutrition. In the UK, this amounts to 75 billion NOK on average per year; more than two-thirds of which is linked to malnutrition, while one-third is linked to obesity.
The greatest economic consequences are linked to the growing group of elderly people. Norway is among the countries in Europe that spend the largest share of GDP on long-term care for the elderly (The EU Ageing Report 2015). The same report shows that Norway will be the country with the greatest increase in spending if it is to maintain its current welfare system. From a preventive perspective, a greater focus on personalised food will lead to personal and societal gains. On a personal level, maintaining a healthy diet might prevent disease, which will improve one’s quality of life and the ability to live independently even at an advanced age. On a social level, customised food and meals might contribute to reduced expenditure for long-term care at institutions as well as reduced sick leave rates for people at a working age.
Customised food will help meet key health policy objectives set by the European Commission, prevent illness, lead to healthier lifestyles, improve knowledge on the relationship between food and health, and help create a more dynamic health system and drive technological developments.
VårMat – Nofima’s initiative for personalised food
At Nofima we use the term personalised (or customised) food when we talk about insights into food and meals that are adapted to the needs of certain groups of people, not tailored food for individuals. A sustainable production of personalised food must be based on products adapted to the needs of groups of people. Increased knowledge and access to new products will make it easier for individuals to build a diet that is adapted to them.
Nofima has led several projects in what we currently may define as personalised food, which has had a focus on food which is tailored to the needs of elderly people or people with dysphagia. We have assembled an interdisciplinary research team at Nofima to develop knowledge that will meet the industry’s need for more information about personalised products and meal solutions.
Our expertise on consumer preferences, trends and habits provides insight and new knowledge which is a prerequisite for targeted product development. Expertise in product development and process optimisation is applied to projects which, together with industrial partners, focus on the development of personalised and appealing food products and meal solutions.
Bailly N. et al. (2015) Relationships between nutritional status, depression and pleasure of eating in aging men and women. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics 61 pp 330–336
German J.B. et al (2004) Personalizing Foods for Health and Prefernce. Food Technology Feature. Vol 58, No 12, pp26-31
Pavlidis C. et.al. (2015) Nutrigenomcis: A controversy. Applied & Translational Genomics 4 pp 50-53
Peregrin T. (2001) The new frontier of nutrition science: Nutrigenomics. Am.Diet.Assoc. 101 (119 1306
Rusell C. A. (2007) The impact of malnutrition on healthcare costs and economic considerations for the use of oral nutritional supplements. Clinical Nutrition Supplements 2 pp 25-32
Sørbye LW. (2003) Hjemmetjenester til eldre – i Bærum og Ullern. Sammenliknende data fra AdHOC studiet. 2003.
Steward-Knox B.J. et al. (2016) Making Personalised nutrition the easy choice: Creating policies to break down barriers and reap the benfits. Food policy 63 pp 134-144
Wismer W.V. (2018). Rapis descriptive product profile techniques for food product development for cancer survivors. Current opinion in food Science 21: pp 79-83