Jeroen Raes (VIB-KU Leuven), Christophe Matthys (KU Leuven), Ignace De Nollin (SmartWithFood)

Today marks the start of a recruitment drive to find participants for a special Flemish research project: FLORA. The project, an initiative of SmartWithFood (a spin-off of Colruyt Group) in collaboration with KU Leuven and VIB wants to investigate whether personalised digital nutritional advice can have a positive effect on health and intestinal microbiota. For a period of 3 months, participants will receive personalised nutritional tips via an app. Their Collect&Go shopping basket will also be altered by adding food products that better fit the diet. Actual “Food as a Service”, scientifically backed up.

FLORA: Helping to improve health using personalised nutritional advice and study of intestinal microbiota

The FLORA study (Health Improvement through Food and Lifestyle intervention based On personalised Retail Advice) is a unique Flemish project initiated by SmartWithFood (a Colruyt Group spin-off), which has been actively working on the possibilities of personalised nutrition for years. Prof. Jeroen Raes (VIB-KU Leuven) and prof. Christophe Matthys (KU Leuven) are providing the scientific support. The aim of this study is to help the team get a better understanding of how the composition and diversity of intestinal microbiota can change as a result of healthier eating patterns. The effect on the general health of the participants will also be investigated.

During the study, the participants will be monitored in terms of lifestyle, well-being and health. This will be done by checking the food they purchase and consume, and by checking their intestinal microbiota, blood and saliva. People with a larger waistline are eligible to participate in the study. Weight loss or improved cholesterol or glucose levels are some of the health improvements that will be monitored.

Professor Christophe Matthys (KU Leuven), expert in the field of nutrition and behavioural change, explains: "Through this project, we want to study the effect of personalised nutritional intervention: do people with ‘pre-metabolic syndrome’ become healthier if they receive personalised nutritional advice for three months? People with pre-metabolic syndrome are not ill yet, but they do have, for example, a large waist, elevated cholesterol or glucose levels that are out of balance. These are predictive factors for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other health disorders." In the context of this study, the team has developed a specific diet that is really aimed at improving intestinal microbiota. “In this study, we want to test this in a specific group of participants and see if we can tackle pre-metabolic syndrome in this way", according to Prof. Matthys.

Participants will be directed to a healthy or healthier diet, either based on the Flemish Food Triangle, or based on an intestinal microbiota-promoting diet. Moreover, the direction they receive will be personalised and tailored to the real-life situation of the participant. This means that participants won’t receive a uniform pre-determined weekly meal plan, but will receive tips tailored to their current diet and their own Collect&Go shopping basket will be adjusted accordingly. The study will start in the beginning of 2020 and participants will be monitored for 5 months.

Professor Jeroen Raes (VIB - KU Leuven), known worldwide as a pioneer in the field of intestinal microbiota research and leader of the Flemish Gut Flora Project, adds: "We will analyse the intestinal microbiota of participants in relation to their health. This will be the first time that we can carry out a real-life intervention study in which the influence of nutritional changes on the health and intestinal microbiota of the consumer is studied, whereby these changes are made on the basis of the consumer's own product preferences and current diet.”

How does that work exactly: Collect&Go as a tool for personalised advice
Participants in the study will purchase their food via Collect&Go, Colruyt Group's online shopping service, for a period of 5 months. The final shopping basket will be monitored from behind the scenes for 3 out of the 5 months and - where possible - certain products will be replaced by a similar, healthier alternative.

An app will also provide participants with personalised nutritional advice in the form of recipes, nutritional information and suggestions based on their Collect&Go purchases. Finally, during the nutritional intervention, participants can contact the dietician's helpline with any questions or comments. Ignace De Nollin, Managing Director of SmartWithFood: "This helpline will provide information about certain products or alternatives that have been added to their shopping basket."

Additionally, the blood, saliva and stool samples of participants will be examined at regular intervals to see if any changes can be detected. Anyone who is interested in participating can find all the information on www.flora-onderzoek.be, and fill in an application form until the end of December.

‘Food as a Service’, based on scientific research
Previous research has shown that general nutritional advice does not always have the desired effect. People who receive personalised nutritional advice appear to be more motivated to develop healthier eating habits and remain motivated for a longer period of time. Ignace De Nollin: “Personalised nutrition has been a growing trend in the food sector for some time now. Consumers are increasingly asking for 'personalised diets', either because they need to be more aware of what they are eating and/or because they are motivated by conscious consumption." SmartWithFood is the instigator of this new research project and wants to be able to offer more scientifically based health-oriented services. Ignace De Nollin: “With this study, we want to see if the concept of 'retailer-enabled personalised nutrition' can lead to an improvement in consumers’ state of health. We hope to learn a lot from this study and build up extensive knowledge about the feasibility and effectiveness of this concept.” 

In the past, the SmartWithFood team has already actively worked on Bio-Planet’s Food Compass and developed the SmartWithFood app, which provides users with information regarding the ingredients of the products they buy. De Nollin: “This is the first time in Belgium that ‘food as a service’ will get a real scientific basis. For us, this is an important direction that retail will take in the future, with more transparency for the customer.”

This study is partly made possible by VLAIO (Flemish Agency for Innovation and Entrepreneurship).
The research (with reference number S63023) was approved by the Ethics Committee Research UZ / KU Leuven.​​​​