Food and the way we eat are evolving at great speed. We already witness an increased personalization of food, including the rise of “free of” diets, for both health reasons (gluten-free, lactose-free, pesticide-free or GMO-free) or ethical reasons (without meat and animals products). The very idea of commensality, of a family meal during which all members share the same dishes, is being undermined.
Customized food is a generic term that covers many different meanings. Nevertheless, customized food can be grouped into two broad categories: (1) the personalization of food by the agrifood industry and foodtech companies in order to meet the wishes and needs of consumers; (2) the personalization of the food product development process by the consumer himself and the way he eats thanks to the tools provided by the agrofood industry and foodtech.
If we take the definition of the Renaissance numérique think tank, custom food consists in “providing a food offering that meets the needs of each consumer at every moment, depending on their characteristics. It is therefore a diet that suits the age, physical activity, lifestyle and health of each consumer”. Jean Philippe Marie Chastenay calls this“self-food.” Customization can be limited to the food product label. It may also concern the ingredients or the product itself. The final stage is the preparation of “tailor-made” food products to meet the specific needs of each person. In this context, innovations concern primarily food itself and all related products (packaging, distribution). Most of the time, the product development process is not controlled by the consumer.
Mass personalization sees companies provide consumers with personalized products since the 1990s in various industries and is now also hitting the food sector. For consumers, this resulted in the possibility to customize the labels of a number of standard food products, more specifically, to offer personalized gifts, without any control on composition. It is a marketing innovation that concerns primarily packaging or distribution, but not the product in question, and that has been developed recently by major food brands such as Coca Cola, Nutella (Ferrero Group) or Evian. For the 50th anniversary of the Nutella brand, in 2014, consumers had the opportunity to customize the label of the famous chocalate cream spread. This operation was recently renewed. Coca Cola also allows consumers to order custom bottles of the brand with the possibility to register a name on the label and send it in a gift box. The same applies for Evian with MyEvian concerning water bottles that can be customized for weddings and numerous celebrations (birthdays, Christmas, New Year or family).
The next step in personalization is the ability for consumers to compose their product according to their wishes or needs by choosing the ingredients from a predetermined list. This is the principle of personalization. German company MyMuesli offers this on its website www.mymuesli.com. It allows the consumer to choose the ingredients that will compose their muesli, with even the possibility to give a name to their “creation” before receiving their order. The YourBite site offers consumers the opportunity to create their own nutrition bar online by chosing their ingredients and getting delivered at home. Finally, the Coca Cola group created a beverage dispenser called Freestyle, which offers consumers over a hundred choices by giving them the ability to mix flavors between the group’s different brands: ex. Coca-Cola cherry, cherry vanilla, lemon, lime, orange, raspberry or vanilla.
The prospects of development of this type of personalization, however, appear likely to be limited, as shown by Ahlem Abidi-Barthe, who in 2004 led one of the first scientific investigations on “mass customization.” She believes that mass customization “stays relatively marginal” for three main reasons: the difficulty of finding a business model, the laziness of brands and low consumer interest. Although there are no specific studies on this issue for the food industry, we can assume that it is not really different from other sectors.
“Mass customization” is certainly not where the potential for growth should be stronger in the coming years. In this regard, hopes are based primarily on the prospect of a “personalized nutrition.” The final stage of this customization of food is in fact that of personalized nutrition whose development is favored by the sequencing of the human genome and the recent advances in the scientific understanding of intestinal microbiota (an organ of the human body specific to each individual made up of approximately 100 billion bacteria and microorganisms in the digestive tract) and the interaction between the food and the human body (and hence, in particular, between its genome and intestinal microbiota) via nutrigenetics, namely the scientific study of the effect of genes on nutrition and nutrigenomics, the scientific study of the effect of diet on gene activity. These scientific developments allow for the possibility of prescribing food tailored to the specific needs of a person, in order to improve their health, but also to prevent certain chronic diseases related to nutrition (cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis , hypercholesterolemia) by the establishment of individualized dietary patterns based on the analysis of their genome and microbiota. In summary, as stated by Pierre Feillet in Quel futur pour notre alimentation (What future for our food, Quae Editions, 2014): “Tell me what your genes are, I’ll tell you what you should eat.” This should involve, as a first step, specific categories according to age (infants, young children, and seniors), their health (allergic persons, suffering from obesity or chronic diseases) or their special needs (sports). This personalized nutrition should first be a medicalized nutrition before gradually concerning all consumers.
Obviously, the potential of personalized nutrition, which has been studied, for example, from 2011 to 2015 as part of the project Food4Me, funded by the European Union, is immense. Agribusiness companies are developing research programs around health and food. Nestlé, via its subsidiary Nestlé Health Science, is taking interest in so-called “nutritional therapies.” The study of microbiota is also one of the research priorities of Danone via the Institut Danone France.
Some companies already offer products or services in personalized nutrition. Some of them sell “nutrigenomic” food. Swiss company Actigenomics offers natural “active nutrigenomic” ingredients, aimed specifically at avoiding the weakening of the immune system, the imbalance of bone metabolism and sleep disorders. The US company Metagenics sells dietary supplements based on nutrigenomics. Their Protectair range is specifically designed to “strengthen” intestinal flora (intestinal microbiota).
But some firms go one step further by carrying out an analysis of the genetic code for health professionals and even private individuals. The Canadian firm Nutrigenomix proposes a nutrigenomics test for dietitians: the genetic analysis report is sent to the healthcare provider who prescribed the test. The US company 23andMe performs an analysis of the genetic code for individuals via a saliva test without having to go through any doctor: in our vernacular, that’s an “analysis of the genome for personal convenience”. Initially, 23andMe marketed DNA testing kits to find out whether the person was a carrier of genes that increase the risk of disease in offspring. This practice was banned in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 23andMe is no longer authorized to make predictions about predispositions to diseases. The company nevertheless continues to offer this type of testing in Canada and the United Kingdom. British company DNAFit offers nutritional recommendations based on its own tests, via a saliva test, or the 23andMe test results. The GenePlanet company also offers a customized diet called Nutrifit based on genetic analysis.
Genome analysis for personal convenience is forbidden in many countries. In addition, this type of testing is highly criticized by geneticists because, among other reasons, medical predictions only apply to very few diseases (such as Alzheimer’s disease). For the moment, this technology is in its infancy and the cost is still high.
The report of the French Academy of Technology dedicated to Food-health: scientific advances and industrial implications published in 2016 (in French here) confirms this: “The promise of many Internet companies that offer health profile predictions based on DNA analysis are misleading and overstated. These offers are also banned in the USA by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since November 2013.” They conclude that “there is still some way to go before considering a broad commercial use of these methods. For several reasons: insufficient scientific validations of issued recommendations; insufficient regulations on data protection; operational decisions about these recommendations left to the “client” and not controlled by “medical supervision”; not to mention the proper ethical dimension. An opinion survey conducted as part of the Food4Me project in 2013 showed that many respondents expressed an interest in personalized nutrition because of its perceived benefits for health (even if they consider that it is primarily intended for people at risk or sick). However, respondents also expressed their concern about the protection of genetic data (anonymity requirement) and place their trust in health professionals of the public sector rather than private companies.