Exploration of the future of food and its impact
Written by Natalie Hughes, Strategy Director with Illustrations by Ben Buckley, Senior Designer
Let’s start at the beginning…
There are few things more essential to our lives than food. Our attitudes and behaviours towards food are anchored by fundamental needs and drivers; it is hard to imagine a past or future in which people wouldn’t turn to food as a source of nutrition, comfort, social bonding and enjoyment. However, this most fundamental of human needs is also an area of rapid transformation. In particular, our understanding of what ‘healthy eating’ means is due to undergo a major shift.
At this time of year, we think about ‘healthy food’ more than ever, with new year detoxes, healthy eating resolutions and veganuary commitments abounding. But do we really understand what ‘healthy food’ means? Whilst there is widespread appreciation of the impact of diet on our wellbeing, we’re often confused about what exactly constitutes a ‘healthy’ diet. National diet guidelines which aim to cultivate a broad understanding of better eating habits compete in a noisy environment full of overwhelming mixed messages about what we ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ eat.
This could all change in the coming years. A new era of personalised nutrition is being ushered in by advances in dietary science. In recent years, a number of companies have sprung up hoping to provide customers with nutritional advice that moves beyond standard national guidelines and into fully personalised guidance. For these companies — whether their advice is based on analysing DNA (e.g. DnaNudge), gut biology (e.g. Viome) or nutritional responses (e.g. ZOE) — the question is not ‘is this food healthy?’ but ‘is this food healthy for me?’
Although we are at an early stage in the development of personalised nutrition, it is difficult to overstate the potential it has to impact the way people approach healthy eating. So we thought we would fast-forward, imagining what this new world of personalised food and nutrition could be. How would it change the way consumers choose what they eat? What would the impact be on grocery stores, hospitality and FMCG companies? And who has already got a head start?
Snacks for the whole family
We’ve all been there: picking up our favourite treat in a supermarket and seeing the hazardous looking red and orange nutritional information, there to demystify nutrition or simply scare us into putting that bag of salted peanuts back down. But imagine if, instead of the generic information on salt, fats and sugars, we lived in a world where nutritional information reflected personal nuances. A world where walking into the supermarket meant not only carrying your bags for life, but also a digital repository of all your personalised nutrition, enabling you to seamlessly identify what foods are right for you and your family.
But what will this mean for retailers and consumer goods companies? Will there be enough traction to abandon mass nutritional scoring systems like traffic light labelling and nutri-score? How will retailers and nutritional technology companies collaborate to deliver these customer experiences? How can digital tools help relay personal nutritional information at the point of decision making?
Early adopters have already begun exploring these questions, with UK grocer Waitrose participating in a clinical trial with DnaNudge as early as 2018. As part of the trial, shoppers who had conducted a DNA swab test were then able to use an app or wristband to scan the barcodes of food products, triggering immediate personalised feedback on whether the product was a good choice for them.
Sharing & trust in a world of personal nutrition
It’s hard enough as it is to cook for a group of guests with ranging dietary needs; finding a recipe that works for your pescatarian brother, a friend with a nut allergy, and their gluten-intolerant partner can be a real minefield! Faced with this, most of us are left to trawl through recipe books and websites, with nothing more than a few functional filters to help us. Would this become even more complicated in a world in which people don’t just have broad dietary restrictions, but complex multifaceted personal nutritional profiles? And how will a host know the ins-and-outs of a guest’s nutritional needs?
Maybe in the future, we’ll be enabled to share our personal nutritional information with trusted contacts. Given the depth and personal nature of this data, perhaps sensitive restrictions on what is shared could be applied, both in terms of the content of the data that’s shared and the context in which it’s used. Think about WhatsApp’s live location sharing feature which allows users to choose who they share their location with and for how long they share it; could similar logic be applied in the case of personal nutritional information?
And if we can share this information with friends and family, would we be willing to share it with the stores we shop at? There’s no doubt that retailers will see a huge opportunity to personalise experiences with this data but how can they cultivate the level of customer trust that would enable them to access this data? Perhaps the answer is that retailers will have to be increasingly transparent about their use of data, or maybe customers will increasingly expect direct incentives before sharing their data (e.g. Amazon’s recent programme that pays customers for data related to their purchases beyond the platform).
The self-organising menu
Cooking at home is one thing but trying to make ‘healthy’ choices when faced with a huge menu in a restaurant can be a real challenge. Beyond key allergen indicators, information about dishes can be hard to come by; this leaves us to interpret the ‘healthiness’ of different meals based on mass nutritional advice and food trends. Personalised nutrition could help simplify this decision point. What if your menu was fully personalised, reordering to show the most healthy dishes for you, with customisations suggested based on your needs?
For restaurants, this could represent a significant shift in the diner experience; no longer would customers be overwhelmed by long menus, they’d instead only have to choose from a streamlined menu that’s made for them. And in a world where customers expect meals that work for their personal needs, will there be increasing demand for customisations, adding to the pressure on the kitchen and staff? Will restaurants — particularly efficiency-focused chains — need to redesign their models of service and production to meet this demand? One restaurant that’s exploring taking customisation to the extreme is Japan-based Sushi-Singularity. Although not yet launched, the concept for Sushi Singularity is to serve personalised sushi based on biometric and genomic data, with 3D printers enabling the creation of custom meals.
Brand new food in a brave new world
So far, we’ve mainly thought about the ways that personalised nutrition might enable us to make better choices from existing food options, but as the Sushi-Singularity concept restaurant suggests, the logical next step is to wonder how personalised nutrition might fundamentally change the food that’s on offer. If we move away from mass nutritional guidance, why wouldn’t we also move away from mass-produced food? What if we shifted towards fully personalised meal-replacement products (like Huel or Soylent, but with the contents of each sachet made for your needs alone)? Going a step further, what if data on your biological responses and changes were collected, enabling the next ‘batch’ of your meal-replacement products to be updated?
Moving into an era of fully customised food products would fundamentally disrupt the traditional consumer goods production model, and in turn the model for distribution of those goods. In some ways, the food sector is already behind the curve in customisation. Whilst companies like Function of Beauty have built business models around fully customised haircare and skincare, customisation in food is mainly limited to production-line style restaurant outlets (like Subway and Sweetgreen), and novelty customisations of external design and packaging (like the Design Your Own M&M’s experience). But what if consumers expected the very contents of their M&Ms to be made for them? How could consumer goods companies and retailers enable this at scale?
Although we may be a long way from personalised nutrition becoming mainstream, this fundamental shift from one-size-fits-all nutritional guidance to a truly individual understanding of what ‘healthy’ eating means could have significant ramifications for both how we choose what we eat and the very products that are available for consumption.
Crucially, thinking about the advent of personalised nutrition raises many complex questions for retailers, consumer packaged goods companies, and foodservice brands: What nutritional technology companies do we need to collaborate with? How can we leverage the rich data of personal nutritional information to deliver hyper-relevant customer experiences? Will customers be comfortable with sharing that data? How do we ensure that we aren’t misusing this data and encouraging new negative eating behaviours? Do we need to transform our operational models to move away from mass production to full customisation?
We believe that food will always be central to our lives, but if the way we eat fundamentally changes, can the same be said for the companies that provide our food if they fail to keep pace with our expectations?