A recent study by Forum for the Future, an independent non-profit working internationally with business, government and other organisations to solve complex sustainability problems, charted the rising numbers of people in the UK who were opting for ‘flexitarian’ diets.
No, we didn’t simply lapse into some obscure secret language just then. Flexitarianism exists. And it’s growing rapidly.
The defining feature of the modern flexitarian is moderation: not simply easing up on (or refraining altogether from) alcohol and reducing their consumption of dairy products, salt and foods containing gluten, but eating less meat in favour of a more plant-based diet. They’re not strict vegetarians: on occasions, they’ll yield to the temptation to savour a bacon sandwich or a chicken marsala. And there’s strong evidence that their dietary preferences are going mainstream.
In 2014, the Ipsos Mori Global Trends Survey found that women and younger people aged 18-34 were especially drawn to moderate flexitarianism. Since the survey also found that 68 per cent of women are mainly responsible for household food shopping – and, according to a 2014 study by Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs), they also spend 22 per cent more than men on shopping trips – it’s easy to see that they’re helping to make flexitarianism a part of mainstream British food culture.
Food manufacturers and food retailers are now faced with a new challenge. These figures translate into literally millions of people. What unites them is a concern for protecting and enhancing their own health through nutrition. But that’s also where the differences arise: words like ‘flexitarian’ can create false unities.
Flexitarians see themselves as unique individuals with unique dietary requirements. Some want to abolish lactose from their food intake, others gluten. Some want to pare meat consumption down to a minimum while others see little wrong in consuming a little lean red meat, fish or poultry every so often. Those worried about the risk of high blood pressure want to reduce or abolish salt consumption in their families, while others worried about childhood tooth decay, diabetes and obesity want to minimise sugar consumption. What all of them want, however, is dietary personalisation.
Consumer interest in “nutrigenomics” – the interactions between food and gene expression – is rising. It’s not only scientists these days who are aware that everyone has a unique phenotype. Consumers are, too. Different people will respond to different ingredients in food in different ways.
The scientific consensus seems to be that digital platforms offering unique nutrigenomic diets to consumers are jumping the gun. For example, John Mathers, director of the Human Nutrition Research Centre at Newcastle University says: “I think companies offering personalized dietary advice are probably running ahead of the evidence.” That’s a view echoed by genetic epidemiologist Paul Franks, who believes that the concept of tailored nutrigenetic diets isn’t quite ready for public consumption.
So, what is to be done given the mushrooming demand for diet personalisation? Despite the scientific scepticism about bespoke nutrigenetic dietary advice at present, researchers have for years known that different people absorb certain nutrients better than others. And leading nutrition scientists believe we need to move away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to nutrition. Here, for example, is the opinion of immunologist Eran Elinav from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel: “The same dietary advice cannot be good for everyone, because we are all different. This is why we have failed so miserably at controlling the obesity epidemic.”
At PSL, we believe that a more pragmatic approach to dietary personalisation is needed, one that draws from tried and tested scientific evidence. Expanding the diversity of fruit and vegetables on offer, broadening the variety of non-alcoholic beverages and offering wholesome alternatives to fatty junk food would go a long way to meeting consumer demand and resolving most of our nutrition-related problems.