Natural Foods Merchandiser logo

Personalized nutrition enables consumers to cut through the current confusing cacophony of health advice, and these technological game changers are updating the future of made-to-order natural retail.

Lisa Marshall

January 1, 2013

6 Min Read
Tech advancements increase individualized health solutions in stores
<p> Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy in Boulder, Colo., allows customers to use the Aisle7 kiosk to research their health concerns while in the store.</p>

Walk through the front door of D’Adamo Personalized Nutrition in Brooklyn, N.Y., and before the sales clerk makes a single recommendation, he may ask for four tiny drops of your blood.

Since opening one year ago, the seemingly sci-fi retail outlet has offered free blood-typing on the spot for shoppers, who are directed minutes later (results in hand) to glistening aisles of supplements, protein powders, teas and snacks—each product uniquely formulated to meet the needs of those with A, O, B or AB blood types.

Customers looking for even more customized advice can duck into a room for a private consultation with a naturopath who will analyze everything from genetic markers (found in saliva) to finger length to taste buds to create a computer-generated “one-of-a-kind diet book written just for them.”

Sixteen years after Peter D’Adamo, ND, published his best-selling Eat Right For Your Type (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996), and 12 years after the Human Genome Project’s completion brought promises of a revolution in nutritional genomics (the use of gene testing to customize nutritional advice), such whizbang technologies remain largely confined to websites or the offices of integrative practitioners.

And yet, some believe the future of natural retailing must include providing personalized nutrition advice and products.

A major benefit of personalized nutrition is that it enables consumers to cut through the current confusing cacophony of health advice. According to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), 50 percent of consumers are baffled by conflicting nutrition information, and 40 percent say if they had to choose one expert to help them live healthier, they would choose a personal nutritionist.

Many natural foods stores already offer personalized services and could get more individualized as genetic-testing companies such as San Francisco-based WellnessFX, which offers do-it-yourself diagnostic tests paired with nutritional phone consultations, move toward retail partnerships.

Although such partnerships could be fruitful, retailers must be careful in how they position personalized nutrition with their customers, says Jay Jacobowitz, founder of Brattleboro, Vt.-based natural products consulting firm Retail Insights. That’s because individualized advice “has the potential to swerve into the practice of medicine, and that is very delicate ground for the retailer to tread on,” Jacobowitz says.

Expert staff and electronic helpers

Thirty-six years after opening The Good Earth Health Food Shoppe in Van Wert, Ohio, Deborah Ford has seen a significant shift in what customers ask about when they come in. “They realize that the one-size-fits-all paradigm doesn’t work anymore,” she says. “But they are so inundated with information, they can’t figure out what applies to them. ‘Should I do the blood-type diet? Go gluten free? Vegan?’ They are overwhelmed.”

To better answer customers’ questions without bumping up against state and federal laws prohibiting retailers from giving detailed nutrition advice, Ford returned to school to become a registered dietitian. She has since gotten a master’s degree in clinical nutrition and attended D’Adamo’s Institute for Human Individuality to learn more about the blood-type diet. “Before, I couldn’t even say, ‘you can take fiber for your constipation,’ without worrying that statement was illegal,” says Ford, who now hosts private consultations on-site at her store and urges her staff to be cautious and refer shoppers to her to answer detailed questions.

Ford isn’t alone. According to FMI, 86 percent of supermarkets now have registered dietitians on staff, at least at the corporate level. “We are also seeing stores offer healthy-living and cooking classes based around a specific age in life or disease state, and more and more stores linking a pharmacist with a dietitian,” says Cathy Polley, vice president of health and wellness at FMI. For instance, an in-store pharmacist may direct a heart patient to a registered dietician’s heart-healthy cooking classes or a lecture on foods to lower blood cholesterol.

Meanwhile, retailers are increasingly turning to electronic kiosks and mobile apps to offer advice that a clerk may not be qualified to provide. “Most stores have a lot of staff turnover, and it takes years to become an expert,” says Skye Lininger, founder of Aisle7, which sells computer kiosks and mobile apps to help stores personalize nutrition advice. “We give them a tool that allows employees to be useful to customers the day they are hired.”

The 14-year-old company—formerly known as Healthnotes—now has touch-screen kiosks in the aisles of 2,000 retailers. Customers plug in personal information (Gluten free? Diabetic? Vegan?) and walk away with diet recommendations and recipes. This fall, the company launched a new offering, Vitamin Advisor, which asks the consumer a series of questions (Age? Gender? Health concerns? Pregnant?) and then churns out a list of supplements he or she may want to consider or avoid because of possible drug interactions, birth defect concerns or other risks. This tool is also available for iPad and as a mobile app.

The Aisle7 technology is not meant to take the place of staff but rather to help them help consumers while “complying with the letter of the law,” Lininger says. “If you start asking people about symptoms or telling them they have a particular condition and should take this or that, you have crossed a line.”

A brave new world

In 2010, Jim Kean founded WellnessFX with a goal of democratizing health care by allowing people to affordably order their own diagnostic tests for things such as cholesterol, hormone levels, electrolyte levels, inflammation and liver function and then have a detailed phone consultation on what to do about them.

For $199, users can drop by a local lab to give blood, have 30 biomarkers examined and spend 20 minutes on the phone with a clinician who will offer nutritional advice based on the results of those tests. According to Kean, the average physical at a doctor’s office looks at only 15 biomarkers (most designed to tell you what illness you already have) and includes just seven minutes with a physician, many of whom are not adequately trained in how to use nutrition to prevent disease.

Thus far, WellnessFX is available only online in a half-dozen states, but Kean has big plans. “We are really excited about the retail space,” he says. He envisions a day not far off when a consumer could purchase a WellnessFX package at a retail store, its pharmacy or its website—perhaps packaged with discounts on supplements or compounding pharmacy time—and have that store ship recommended supplements directly to his or her doorstep. “By the time someone gets through their diagnostics and has had their consult, they are incredibly motivated to make the purchases their practitioners have suggested,” Kean says.

But what if the practitioner suggests something that retailers don’t generally carry? To address this problem, D’Adamo created his own line of blood-type-specific supplements to meet the biochemical individuality of each person, including four probiotics, four protein powders, four sprouted supplements, etc. Roughly 1,000 retailers nationwide now carry his books and blood-test kits, but few have been willing thus far to carry the supplements to go along with them. So, D’Adamo decided to take an “if you can’t join them, beat them” approach and opened his own store. He now has locations in England, Singapore, New York and Connecticut.

“Our store is like the Apple Store for nutrition,” he says, noting that long before Apple products were a household name, they were found solely in Apple-only boutiques. “Apple decided to create its own environment and rewrite the way computers were sold—that is what we are doing for nutrition,” he says. “You don’t have to go to an Apple store to buy Apple anymore.”

Subscribe and receive the latest updates on trends, data, events and more.
Join 57,000+ members of the natural products community.

You May Also Like