Sight and Life, in collaboration with the Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley (SFNV), recently led an effort to demystify the concept of precision nutrition and its implications for public health in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC). While this effort revealed major challenges to bringing precision nutrition to the field in low-resource areas, these challenges offer vast opportunities to engage stakeholders in both the public and private sectors for the benefit of consumers worldwide.
The Basics of Precision Nutrition
The terms “precision nutrition,” “personalised nutrition,” and “targeted nutrition” have emerged in recent years. With a quick literature search, you may find that these terms have varied definitions but a common element tying them together: to make nutrition less reliant on one-size fits all approaches.
Instead, these approaches are geared more toward accurate data collection and analysis of characteristics of individuals or target groups to inform tailored, safe, and effective nutrition interventions. “Precision nutrition” has surfaced as the most attractive term, as it rightly justifies its purpose—to make nutritional efforts more precise.
“Precision nutrition is an approach that uses rigorous scientific information on an individual’s characteristics and environment. This information is used to develop targeted, accessible, affordable, desirable nutrition solutions that offer measurable individualized benefit. Such targeted solutions address the most pressing nutrition challenges faced in LMIC.”
- SFNV Precision Nutrition for LMIC working group
Precision nutrition is a process which involves several tools and methods ranging from less to very specific in terms of the information that can be obtained. These methods include approaches typically used in the field, such as demographic surveys and phenotype measurements which provide less specific information; but precision nutrition also includes more advanced methods. Metabolic indicator assessments and high-throughput omics-based methods shed light on individual characteristics, such as metabolism, genetics, and the microbiome (see the Infographic). Data collected from these approaches collectively are then analysed to develop tailored solutions that precisely address a particular nutritional challenge.
A key component of this growing area of public health nutrition is the inclusion of new and improved technologies. These tools measure dietary intake, nutritional status, and impact associated with nutritional interventions with better accuracy and ease. The data then offer the opportunity to create more informed nutritional recommendations. As a result, consumers as well as public and private sectors in many different regions can benefit from such approaches.
Applications in Low-, Middle-, and High-income Countries
Contrary to some beliefs, precision nutrition has the potential to help those in all regions of the world. While most affluent settings have sufficient resources and capabilities to focus nutritional efforts at the individual level, precision nutrition for public health in resource-poor settings aims to focus on at-risk groups of individuals that share common characteristics. LMIC communities could greatly benefit from this public health approach to precision nutrition, as it can lead to more cost-effective interventions that use limited resources more effectively.
“Precision nutrition will be fundamental to the data revolution urgently needed to end malnutrition, by enabling data collection that takes context into consideration.”
-Dr Klaus Kraemer, Managing Director of Sight and Life
Many data and nutrition challenges exist within LMIC. Applying precision nutrition approaches can help solve these challenges, as described in the needs assessment conducted by the SFNV working group.
Easy to use field-friendly tools such as point-of-care diagnostic devices would ensure adequate data collection, which is needed to understand and sufficiently treat challenges that have different causes. For example, iron and vitamin B12 status as well as CRP (C-reactive protein) may be identified from a portable diagnostic device in individuals with anemia. An improved intervention to address this root cause of anemia could include precisely formulated foods, as opposed to all individuals receiving an iron-fortified product that won’t be utilized in states of inflammation or may even harm the microbiota. There is need for precise tools that yield enough data to inform interventions to improve outcomes in LMIC to ensure the safety and efficacy of the approach. These same precise methods could help at-risk groups in all resource constraint settings including high-income countries (HIC).
The affluent consumers in HIC can also benefit from precision nutrition approaches. They may wish to learn more about their biological make up through sophisticated tools to better determine their dietary intake needs. For example, an athlete may wish to personalise protein intake, supplement use, and exercise regimens based on individual microbiota, metabolic, and genetic profiling. Analysis of these omics data can guide the individual’s nutritional recommendations toward maximum health benefit.
Despite the far-ranging applications, the barriers to implementation of precision nutrition (e.g., funding, affordability of approaches, resources, precision nutrition knowledge and trained workforce, non-invasive tools, suitable technology, and collaboration among sectors) must be addressed.
Implications for the Public and Private Sectors
Clearly, consumers in low-, middle-, and high-income countries have the potential to benefit from precision nutrition, but what can be done about the barriers? Public and private sectors have an opportunity to capitalize on this scientific movement by addressing these barriers for the greater good. The private sector could develop novel technologies for data analysis, and design nutritional products, supplements, and treatments for specific challenges. The public sector could offer funding opportunities and subsidies and develop policies regarding implementation of nutritional approaches that are cost- effective, efficacious, and accessible to those most in need. Both private and public sectors can take part in the continued research and innovation in this space to tackle existing and future nutritional challenges.
Partnerships between public and private entities will be important, as each brings different skills and perspectives toward the common goal of improved nutrition and health. Government, academia, civil society, and industry each have a role to play in successfully integrating precision nutrition solutions.
With all the food security, biodiversity, and climate risks today and predicted for the future, precision nutrition offers the opportunity for many sectors to come together to support nutrition and health around the globe.
Jacquelyn R. Bedsaul, PhD joined Sight and Life in May 2022 as a Nutritional Immunologist to pursue her curiosity and further expose the implications of malnutrition on the immune system. Her work aims to demonstrate that implementation of effective nutrition interventions can improve health outcomes for populations in low- and middle-income countries. Jacquelyn earned a PhD in Immunology from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She has engaged in studies at the intersection of nutrition, microbiology, and immunology, and hopes to combine her interest in these fields for the benefit of public health and vulnerable groups world-wide.
Breda Gavin-Smith, SRD, RPHnutr, MPH is the Global Public Health Nutrition Director at Sight and Life. Passionate about bringing positive change in global health, with deep expertise in nutrition science and in catalyzing collaboration across diverse stakeholder groups she has over 20 years’ experience in global nutrition. Breda has worked in the Public and Private sector in Ireland, the UK, South-East Asia and West and East Africa. She currently leads the Nutrition Team at Sight and Life and is the Partnership Lead at the Foundation.