After researchers finished mapping the human genome in 2003, many predicted a revolution in health care powered by unprecedented insight into our unique biological code. There have indeed been strides in precision medicine, which takes an individual’s gene variants, lifestyle, and environment into account to help prevent and treat disease. Applying the same principles to a more basic aspect of health—nutrition—has been much slower.
But thanks to recent research, ubiquitous mobile technology, cheaper medical sensors, and new food production methods, the idea of customized nutrition is making progress. International food giant Nestlé, through its research arm, the Nestlé Institute for Health Sciences (NIHS), is working with Massachusetts-based Waters, a maker of scientific equipment, to develop tools that produce a kind of nutritional snapshot, part of an ongoing project to develop a way to quickly and accurately measure a person’s deficiencies in vitamins and minerals and then produce a tailored nutritional supplement.
A tool developed by researchers at Purdue University, Technology Assisted Dietary Assessment, or TADA, uses software and image-processing techniques to analyze a photo of food taken by a smartphone camera. The software can gauge the volume eaten, help identify the exact foods on the plate, and draw on nutritional databases to provide information on calories and nutrients consumed.
One obstacle to personalized nutrition is that while we can measure many things, says David Levitsky, a professor in the division of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, “the question is: do we really have the knowledge to correct these problems through a special diet?” We eat a wide variety of foods, after all, and the connections between diet, genes, environment, and health are difficult to unravel.
For now, special-needs markets such as the elderly may present the most viable application of personalized nutrition. A company called Biozoon is leading a European research consortium’s exploration of 3-D-printing food for those who have trouble chewing and swallowing—a common issue among the elderly, and one that is often linked to malnutrition. Nurses and doctors would enter nutrition recommendations for each patient—for example, added protein or calcium—into a software system that works with a 3-D printer. The printer would then extrude food designed with a texture that makes swallowing easier, customized with specific nutrients for each patient. The goal would be for each printer to eventually produce 600 customized meals per day.
The U.S. Army is testing 3-D-printed food, too. One idea is to use 3-D printers and biometric sensors to provide tailored meals.“The nutritional needs of the warfighters do vary in different contexts,” says Lauren Oleksyk, a food technologist at the Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center in Massachusetts. Foods created with 3-D printing, she says, may be able to meet soldiers’ exact nutritional needs—which could change, for example, during a difficult mission that requires expending additional energy—in a way that today’s ready-to-eat rations may not. Printed meals could include performance-enhancing compounds like caffeine and omega-3s as soon as a decade from now.