Gene-ius: how DNA is dishing up personalised meals

Both supermarkets and restaurants are turning to genetic testing to offer consumers a unique shopping and eating experience.

30 January 2018
personalisationWaitroseVita Mojotechnology

Consumers shopping using science? Or choosing lunch based on genetic make-up? This isn’t sci-fi fantasy – it’s already on the way.

DNA testing has been on the rise since the boom in ancestry queries. Now, it’s infiltrating food, and the business is good: the world’s consumer genetic testing market was worth $70m (£53m) in 2015, and is expected to rise to $340m (£261m) by 2022.

So how exactly does DNA fit into the picture? With personalisation of food, of course. Want to know the best biscuit or breakfast cereal for your individual gut health? Or the grains most likely to cause inflammation based on your genes? Then get tested.

In the US, food giant Campbell Soup has invested in nutrition tech start-up Habit. It offers an at-home kit, which tracks data from an individual’s saliva to offer unique food recommendations based on the user’s metabolic system.

Here in the UK, Waitrose is considering selling in-store DNA tests to help customers make more personalised, healthier eating decisions.

So is this concept gene-ius or just a gimmick?

This time it’s personal

Will we soon see this innovation on supermarket shelves? Well, DnaNudge, a start-up founded by British scientists, intends to sell its tests in retailers this year, reported the Times.

The planned nationwide pilot would involve in-store analysis that takes about 15 minutes, identifying genetic variants, including traits like sensitivity to carbohydrates and saturated fat, or even lactose intolerance.

Customers’ results are then uploaded to an app, allowing them to scan the barcodes of groceries on their phones to see whether the items are suitable based on their compiled profile. If not, the program will provide other options that are better alternatives.

image credit: cosinart/iStock/Thinkstock

Very smart stuff, right? But there are some concerns over whether the science is proven in this field.

Registered nutritionist Dr Laura Wyness says it’s an exciting area, but we currently don't know enough for it to be useful in routine dietary practice.

“A number of gene-nutrient interactions have been studied, and genetic variations in shaping an individual’s nutritional requirements have been recognised. However, we are still learning about how genes interact with each other as well as the environment, and crucially, how to interpret and translate genetic information into appropriate dietary advice,” she says. 

“It’s important to keep consumer expectations of this approach in check. Genes are only part of the picture. Good lifestyle choices can play a much bigger part in our health and wellbeing.”

The DnaNudge team says multiple research papers and clinical studies support its approach. The company cites one study of people with a history of weight-loss failure, who followed a DNA-based diet for 300 days. They achieved a 5.6% reduction in body mass index, compared to a 2.2% gain for a group that followed standard dietary guidelines.

Tailored takeout

What about an actual real-world application? Introducing DNAFit, another British company that offers testing for both fitness and nutrition, using 50 genetic variants to create a personal report.

It teamed up with Vita Mojo restaurants last year. Customers were able to take the test and then visit their local branch and order a personalised meal designed to match their individual tastes and genetic examination, including taking into account factors such as individual macronutrients and ingredient needs.

For example, a person recommended to follow a Mediterranean macronutrient split might select turkey with broccoli, kale and sweet potato mash.

Charley Gloerfelt-Tarp from Vita Mojo says the company’s philosophy is about individual eating. They wanted to offer DNA analysis to give people the tools to dine better.

“We have proprietary software that has reduced the barrier for food companies to provide personalised food. In our own stores we serve up a bespoke meal in three to five minutes, and 500 people go through our doors a day,” she says. “So now that it’s becoming easier, I think more people are going to have to adopt it, as customers are demanding it more.”

Vita Mojo is currently beta testing to integrate DNA results seamlessly into its ordering process – for instance, flagging ingredients that are needed by the individual or hiding things they shouldn’t be eating.

Information overload

So why is personalisation becoming so big? Andrew Steele, head of product at DNAFit, thinks it’s due to the information revolution. From wearable devices to smartphones and DNA testing, people have more knowledge and ownership over their health data.

“The overall trend of personalisation is not a new thing in the nutrition industry, as companies and large corporates are already designing recipes based on location. In Japan, there are 200 flavours of Kit Kat compared to two in the UK, so there are already different formulations based on different habits and taste preferences,” he says.

“We already have milk that is, say, low fat or dairy free, and we consider it normal, but that’s actually allowing personalisation. So DNA testing is the next step. By allowing people to have genetic data, it enables them to make better, educated choices.”

DNAFit’s tech identifies everything from a person’s response to carbs and fats, to their detoxification ability, whether certain micronutrients and vitamins are needed or even traits like lactose intolerance or the way their body metabolises caffeine.

The company also has a roadmap for introducing its testing into supermarkets, says Steele, and like DnaNudge, it would give customers guidance based on personalised data – whether recommending a replacement for a product or green-lighting an ingredient.

“That is a very easy way to allow customers to navigate the various options, and it means they don’t get choice paralysis,” he says.

Open wide for that saliva swab. It turns out one size (or supper) no longer fits all.

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