How personalized nutrition—and personal data—is revolutionizing dietary supplements

Nutritional Outlook, Nutritional Outlook Vol. 24 No. 5, Volume 24, Issue 5

Personalized-nutrition brands have to be strategic, responsible, and respectful in how they acquire, safeguard, and use consumers’ data.

It’s hard to overestimate just how “disruptive”—in a positive way, of course—the rise of personalized nutrition has been for the health-and-wellness industry. And it’s equally hard to overestimate how essential data’s been to making all the creative disruption possible. After all, how can brands tailor a nutrition regimen to an individual without data about that individual’s unique nutrition needs?

And yet data poses a touchy dilemma: Like fire, it can shed light; but like fire, it can also burn. And the last thing a wellness brand—or any brand, for that matter—wants is to burn the people it’s trying to serve. So brands have to be strategic, responsible, and respectful in how they acquire, safeguard, and use consumers’ data.

That’s a tall order, and delivering on it will require that brands be both enterprising and cautious.

Data Meets Design

Few know this as well as Brad Helfand, COO, Vous Vitamin LLC (Highland Park, IL). “We’re entering a period in which data science meets vitamin design,” he says, “so those brands with access to detailed consumer data have a better starting point to compose and properly dose a vitamin for individualized needs.”

That’s the enterprising part; as for the caution, Helfand continues, “There are immense risks to consumers if brands mishandle personal data.”

But he and others with a similarly bullish take on the personalized-nutrition wave calculate that, on balance, the potential benefits to consumers—and to industry—outweigh the risks, especially when personalized nutrition is done right.

Nutrition for Every Body

As a concept, Helfand believes, personalized nutrition “has strong relevance” for shoppers today. “Consumers intuitively understand that everybody—and every body —is unique, with distinct personal profiles that dictate supplementation needs.”

As such, many are more than ready to move beyond the multivitamins-for-all model toward a paradigm that targets products directly at the individual. Helfand notes that 50% of respondents to LEK Consulting’s 2018 Beauty, Health & Wellness Consumer Survey1 professed moderate to very high interest in personalized nutritional supplements regardless of generation.

In its Personalized Nutrition Special Report 2021, Nutrition Business Journal predicts the personalized-nutrition supplements category will strengthen to an estimated market value of $1.8 billion by 2024. “So while it’s still in its infancy as a sector,” says Helfand, “personalized nutrition is set to grow extremely quickly in the coming years.”

Granted, the current state leaves room for growth. “Our own research at Vous Vitamin confirms a low starting market penetration for personalized nutrition,” Helfand concedes. “We surveyed more than 3,000 natural-product consumers and found that nine of 10 hadn’t tried any of the leading personalized or non-personalized direct-to-consumer brands. So we believe there’s going to be a wave of new consumers coming into this category soon.”

From Transactional to Longitudinal

When they do, they’ll shake up nutritional supplementation as we know it, and as far as Helfand is concerned, it won’t happen a moment too soon. Why? Because the way we supplement today fails to produce the most good for the most people, he believes.

“The mass-market nutrition sector is stuck in a transactional relationship,” Helfand argues. “The consumer often doesn’t know what half of the ingredients on the label are or why they’re there, and the brand doesn’t know which needs they’re trying to address for that consumer or whether they stick with the vitamin routine they’ve chosen. So we’re confident that the whole sector and its consumers will benefit from a shift from this transactional relationship to a longitudinal one.”

Data-Driven

But to transition away from that transactional arrangement, both parties need to get clear about data: on wellness states, needs, wants, and more. And savvy personalized-nutrition brands have to get their hands on that data in the first place. How will they do it?

The direct engagement that happens between brands and shoppers in the online marketplace certainly opens a window on intel, Helfand believes. “The fact that so many consumers have shifted to buying online and are more comfortable with direct-to-consumer brands has created an unparalleled opportunity to gather consumer insights that can drive better product formulation,” he says.

But reaching out proactively is also critical. “We’ve found that a well-constructed online survey assessment that asks the right questions around different aspects of health and lifestyle can advance our understanding of the consumer in meaningful ways for vitamin formulation,” he continues.

Adds Arielle Levitan, MD, a board-certified internal medicine physician and cofounder of Vous Vitamin, the idea is to approximate “the type of conversation you’d like to have with your doctor”—one that covers all the bases that she, as a doc, would touch in an office visit. Of course, few doctors have that luxury these days, let alone the grounding in nutrition to steer the conversation in an enlightened direction.

So by bringing that kind of conversation to consumers through their survey, Helfand concludes, brands like Vous “fill an important gap in the marketplace.”

Do Not Disturb

But once the information is in their hands, personalized-nutrition brands have to protect it lest they open up a gap of their own—in data security.

And make no mistake: Consumers care. “They’re protective of their personal information and want to see signals of trustworthiness before submitting these details to brands,” Helfand says.

In Vous’s case, he adds, the fact that the technology and algorithms that analyze consumers’ data were designed by two doctors “who’ve dedicated a significant portion of their professional careers to studying vitamin and nutritional science” should reassure shoppers that “privacy issues are treated with the importance they deserve.”

Beyond that, how the company uses its patrons’ information—that is, to build smart formulations—is on the up-and-up. “It’s about pattern recognition and looking for meaningful data points that can drive formulation decisions,” Helfand explains. “We triangulate that data with leading clinical evidence to craft targeted solutions for consumers.”

Data also lets them make “bolder bets” about composition and dosing than is the norm with mass-market formulators, or even brands operating in online marketplaces where, he says, “the consumer is largely anonymous.”

What Could Go Wrong?

All of which sounds revolutionary—until something goes wrong. And that’s a possibility that brands like Vous are both mindful of and prepared to avoid.

“Personalized-supplement brands have a responsibility to provide clear and accessible privacy policies published on their websites that inform consumers about the steps they take to protect privacy and associated risks,” Helfand declares.

Investing in airtight IT-security practices and establishing ethical internal data-handling measures are also top-priority. “We listen to our consumers, and when they request their data be deleted, of course we move quickly to accommodate,” he says.

And while it’s the specter of the massive data breach that scatters sensitive financial and health information to the four winds that keeps people up at night, the consequences of poorly handled data tend to be as mundane as inefficiency and hucksterism.

“The disappointing side of the industry,” Helfand laments, “is when data is used to drive more supplement sales and excess prescribing. Its greatest danger is as a marketing hook to get consumers to take more pills and powders than they need, or to drive up their out-of-pocket costs. We believe that appropriately used data should craft innovative, tailored products that move individuals toward a more efficient and less pill-burdened state, and with improved results.”

Rules to Live By

So those are the rules brands should follow. As for the consumer’s responsibility, it adds up to “buyer beware—and informed.”

“It’s extremely important that consumers enter relationships with brands they trust,” Helfand says. For example, he suggests that consumers conduct a simple Google News search to uncover any reported lapses.

And when trust emerges this way, consumers and personalized-nutrition brands can carry on with the business of making everyone healthier. The goal, Helfand says, is “a two-way relationship between consumers and brands: Consumers invest their time and trust when they submit data, and brands invest their expertise and capabilities in analyzing and turning it into a superior product.”

Reference

  1. L.E.K. Consulting Survey. “2018 Beauty, Health & Wellness Survey.” Published July 5, 2018. Accessed here.