Many of us struggle to achieve healthy eating goals at work. PERFSO – Personalised and Connected Food Service Providers – is an EIT Food-funded project that wants to bridge the gap between good intentions and reality by providing support and personalised dietary advice in the workplace.
The concept of personalised dietary advice arose in the early 2000s with the advent of affordable genomics technologies. It is not a new idea: we have known for decades that individuals respond differently to the same diet, or indeed individual nutrients (e.g., saturated fat). However, PERSFO aims to deliver personalised dietary advice in partnership with food service providers, using a scientifically validated recommender (smartphone application), helping users make healthier meal choices. Importantly, however, it is not just the foods that are personalised, but also how users are advised. Some of us like to be reminded gently (nudged), others want something more direct (coaching), whilst some of us need rules to live by, especially when canteens often have fixed mass-appeal menus.
PERFSO started on the 1st January 2020, when most food researchers were pondering neglected inboxes and perhaps, grudgingly, acknowledging consumption of excess calories and alcohol, again.
None of the PERSFO organisations gave much thought to reports about an emerging virus at the kick-off meeting in Brussels (23.01.2020). A pandemic certainly does not appear in the project risk assessment (it does now). However, with most of Europe under public health restrictions by mid-March 2020, some scientists were busy applying their skills solely to coronavirus and covid-19. Others were unable to do laboratory work – later some socially distanced time in laboratories was possible – and a large portion of Europe’s working population was at home, not using canteens or vending machines core to PERSFO’s work.
Nevertheless, during a global pandemic, led by researchers from the Quadram Institute working from homes around Norfolk (UK), five organisations in Belgium (KU Leuven, Sodexo, shiftN, Alberts and EuroFIR AISBL) have designed and built the PERSFO app.
They have linked it successfully to scientifically validated dietary advice resources, demonstrated that the proposed approaches can encourage healthier eating behaviours, and started testing the app within established convenience food delivery systems. Most of this work has been done online, but some valuable data have been collected from potential users under strict public health controls.
“The consortium is not unscathed: some people have struggled with the isolation, and we have lost colleagues, friends, and relatives to covid-19 and other causes. But, if PERSFO has shown anything, it is that the responses of scientists and science are far more agile than we might have imagined back in January. We have used online meeting tools more, and – mercifully – they have got better, not only for meetings but also to provide support. Many research solutions emerge during informal discussions and, whilst the bar is difficult to replicate online, we have shown it is not impossible to keep research on track”, said Paul Finglas, Head of the Quadram Institute’s Food Databanks (UK) and Managing Director of EuroFIR (BE).
As for the future, like everyone the PERSFO Beneficiaries are looking forward to emerging from the shadows of the pandemic. Initial explorations have started to consider how PERSFO might be launched into the retail food supply chain during 2021-2022 and a proposal for additional funding has been submitted. And, as workplaces reopen, PERSFO hopes it can support those who want to make the ‘new normal’ a healthier normal with personalised dietary advice in the workplace.
The consortium would like acknowledge and thank KU Leuven and Sodexo, in particular, for their efforts with respect to the focus groups and commercial client partnerships under extraordinarily challenging circumstances.