What is the consumer value of Nutrigenetics?

Bridgett Gordon-Billingsley

 The application of epigenetic innovations in cosmetics will be discussed in later article.

Nutrigenetics, nutrigenomics and nutritional genomics are three words that are very similar and it’s kind of confusing to remember what they each mean. Nutritional genomics includes the study of nutrigenetics, nutrigenomics and nutritional epigenetics. When I break the words apart, obviously nutri- or nutritional is part of every term. Nutritional refers to food, health and diet. The key difference between the terms is the words genetics and genomics. Genetics refers individual variation. For example, a person could have really amazing bodybuilding genetics. This means that they have nice full muscle bellies and the ability to pack on lots of muscle and diet down to very lean levels without losing much muscle shape and fullness. This bodybuilding potential varies from person to person. A person either hits the genetic lottery in this regard or they don’t. Genomics refers to the human genome. It is broader in scope. When I think of nutrigenomics, I broadly refer to it as finding foods that function to promote healthy eating and a healthy diet for everyone. I think we all need to follow general health guidelines but then to optimize our health it would be beneficial to know how our individual genetic variations affect our nutritional needs and status.

The goal of nutrigenetics is to understand how individual genetic variations affect health status and individual response to nutrients. The major issues surrounding nutrigenetics and nutrigenomics are putting products into the hands of consumers that are both beneficial and based on science. Legal implications involving companies that offer nutrigenetics services also needs to be addressed.

Customers must also see the value in nutrigenetics. Current marketing of nutrigenetics seems to be based on a model similar to the supplement industry. Specifically, this personalized model is geared towards direct consumer contact with the supplier. In this regard, there is no middleman such as health care practitioner. The modernization of medicine and health care via the Internet further complicates matters. A real concern is how qualified are these Internet companies in giving advice about genetics and personalized nutrition. Some of the arguments against providing this testing include: tests that are not validated scientifically and test results that are not correctly interpreted. After clients receive test results, they are given very general health and wellness advice. This industry is still in the infancy stage of providing a meaningful individualized product to consumers.

Consumer buy in is also an issue. From a marketing point of view, how does this industry convey to consumers the possibilities of better health and preventative health measures via nutrition interventions based off of genetics testing? Even with buy in from consumers, what is a reasonable expectation for the products? It’s very easy for consumers to look at a new treatment or supplement as a cure all. This is very similar to supplement industry expectations. My concern is that this innovative field will become a pathway for snake-oil salesman to take advantage of consumers. The communication of this new technology to consumers is extremely critical. This industry must steer clear of offering false hopes and promises.

The position of the dietetics associations is that registered dieticians are not well versed in genetics and nutrient gene interactions to apply nutrigenetics in a clinical setting. So, if the RD’s can’t offer nutrigenetics services, I have very little hope that others would be able to move the direction of nutrigenetics in a more meaningful direction because in most states only registered dieticians are allowed to provide nutritional therapy.

The biggest challenge for the application of nutrigenetics is ensuring that this technology is available across all social classes. I don’t really think it’s possible. Applying nutrigenetics in health care will continue to follow the traditional healthcare model. Finances will dictate access.