Food Gets Personal

By Dina Cheney

The days of one-size-fits-all nutritional advice and mass-market snacks might soon be behind us. Instead, the concept of the moment is personalization. Specialized diets and allergy awareness have increased, spawning targeted food and drink products, such as vegan burgers, gluten-free chips and Paleo meal kits. And it’s about to get ultra-personal.

Companies are mobilizing technology to collect customer data, then using this information to provide personalized shopping and dining experiences. A crop of new businesses even offers individualized nutrition advice, based on their analyses of customers’ biological samples. Read on to learn how American food culture is becoming all about you.

Nutrition plans

Since each of us is unique, it follows that nutritional advice should not be generic. This belief has inspired the genesis of several companies offering personalized health reports and tips. The basic idea: Once customers learn about their own biology, they can biohack, or follow a diet or exercise regimen tailored to their bodies. For example, someone allergic to lactose who does not metabolize fat efficiently might adhere to a lactose-free, lower-fat diet.

The blog of one such company, Habit, states the following: “The general [health] guidelines are there to help the majority of Americans eat healthy, but your nutrition needs might be different from everyone else’s. You may need more or less of certain nutrients depending on your age, body metrics, activity level, life stage, blood markers … and even genetics. At a biological level, everyone’s body absorbs and metabolizes food slightly differently.”

Although each company has a distinct approach, all begin by asking customers to collect a sample of their own biological material: saliva, blood or stool. Saliva reveals DNA; blood indicates cholesterol, blood sugar and more; and stool indicates the nature of the gut microbiome. The samples are then put through a battery of tests, among others, for DNA, lactose intolerance, caffeine tolerance and metabolic rate.

Along with sharing lab results, the companies offer targeted diet (and sometimes also fitness) recommendations based on this data. For instance, they might suggest an ideal ratio of macronutrients (proteins, carbs and fats). Sometimes they combine these reports with nutrition and fitness counseling—for the ultimate in personalized and effective service.

“Research has shown that people who are given personalized nutrition advice are more likely to stick with their eating plan than people who receive non-personalized advice,” Habit’s website says.

Customized food from 3-D printers

What’s the next step after such personalized biological insights? Personalized food manufactured by 3-D printers. “Imagine a home appliance that, at the push of a button, turns powdered ingredients into food that meets the individual nutrition requirements of each household member,” ScienceDaily says. In a paper she presented at the 2018 American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting, researcher Jin-Kyu Rhee, Ph.D., associate professor at Ewha Womans University in South Korea, explained how the textures and absorption properties of foods can be customized to meet individual needs.

Packaged foods and meal kits

Are you seeking out chips that are vegan, gluten-free and devoid of soy? Check. What about a gluten-free and dairy-free pancake mix? Yep. If you’re Paleo and looking for a meal-kit service, you’ll be able to choose from a whopping 12-plus options. (If you’re vegan, go for Purple Carrot or Hungryroot.) Thanks to a rise in niche diets, companies have been introducing products free of certain allergens and forbidden ingredients.

“The global gluten-free product market size … is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 9.3 percent from 2017 to 2025,” Grand View Research reports. Meanwhile, Mintel estimates that nondairy milk sales have grown by 61 percent since 2012 and are estimated to reach $2.11 billion in 2017. That’s a lot of demand for “alternative” products.


Customizable drinks and meals are nothing new. Just consider Burger King’s “Have It Your Way” slogan, which it used for 40 years. Yet chains have recently taken the concept to new levels. “Seventy-two percent of consumers expect restaurants to allow customization, [according to] Technomic, which further noted that half of today’s 10 fastest-growing limited-service chains with sales under $200,000 are build-your-own pizza concepts,” says Phil Lempert on his site

In the same article, Lempert predicts that restaurants, based on their collection of customer data, could begin further personalizing dining experiences. For example, they might recommend menu items and pursue other targeted promotions.

Shopping experiences

As technology increases its role in our lives, more of us are buying groceries online. In fact, Forrester Research expects the “global online grocery market” to increase “at a compound annual growth rate of 17 percent from 2017 to 2022.” Along with convenience, digital shopping provides personalized experiences. Case in point: how Amazon offers recommendations based on customers’ particular shopping history.

In order to compete with online retailers, brick-and-mortar grocery stores are trying to improve the in-store shopping experience, making it more customized. For instance, according to The Wall Street Journal, mega-chain Kroger is planning to introduce shelves with sensors that would communicate with apps on shoppers’ mobile devices. These apps would collect personal shopping data and use it to change the banner ads displayed on shelves, targeting them to specific customers. The company also uses customer purchase data to personalize the coupons it sends, and it is testing mobile apps to recommend sale items and shopping lists based on meal preferences.

Thanks to improved technology and hyper-personalization in the food and drink space, self-serve may look a lot different from the pre-portioned, lukewarm grub we’ve picked up in the dorm dining hall or the office cafeteria. Instead, we can learn more about ourselves and fulfill our exact needs and desires. In our book, that’s a positive form of self-indulgence.

Photo credit: DragonImages, Thinkstock; vikif, Thinkstock; KutcherAV, Thinkstock; MarianVejcik, Thinkstock; Ridofranz, Thinkstock


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Dina Cheney

Dina Cheney is a writer and recipe developer whose cookbooks include “The New Milks,” “Mug Meals,” “Meatless All Day,” “Year-Round Slow Cooker,” “Williams-Sonoma New Flavors for Salads,” and “Tasting Club.” She has contributed articles and recipes to Every Day with Rachel Ray, Parents, Fine Cooking, Clean Eating, Specialty Food, Coastal Living, The Huffington Post, and more. Cheney is a graduate of The Institute of Culinary Education and Columbia University. Find her online at, and her complete collection of non-dairy resources at