Activity trackers: game changers or bathroom scales for the 21st century?

Posted on:
January 16, 2017
Julian Mellentin

FitBit pic 2 Tracker pic 4After millions of dollars of investment and hundreds of thousands of hours of work by code-writers and engineers, it looks as if we might have re-invented the bathroom scales.

Admittedly, what we have now is shinier, hi-tech, and more portable. But also more expensive than traditional bathroom scales.

Personal activity trackers such as Fitbit, Apple Watch and others are much-loved by fitness-oriented 20-35 year-olds, helping them keep track of their personal best runs, cycle-rides, steps or whatever.

Silicon Valley and the world of tech loves to promote itself as “game-changing” and making the world a better place in which technology is “the answer” to whatever problems we messy humans have. But the great hope that trackers could help fight the overweight crisis is beginning to look over-blown.

The unthinking naivety of the tech world was neatly summarized by a professor of preventative medicine at the Pennington Biomedical Research Centre, who was quoted in USA Today as saying: “If you put a scale in someone’s bathroom, that doesn’t mean they are going to lose weight. The tracker is not going to tie your running shoes and move your feet.”

The evidence? A study published in the medical journal The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology1 investigated the extent which an activity tracker – with or without cash incentives – could increase physical activity and improve health outcomes among working people during a 6-month period.

Employees from 13 organizations in Singapore were randomized into 4 study groups, ranging from a control (with no tracker) to a group that was given a tracker plus cash payments if they logged more than 50,000 steps per week.

The result? No evidence of improved health outcomes because of the trackers. Within 6 months, 40% abandoned the Fitbit and by month 12 that number increased to 90%.

The researchers say that because there are beneficial effects among participants in the Fitbit group at month 12 (despite the lack of wear), it is possible that participants wore the unit for a brief period of time, learned about their activity patterns, and then stopped wearing it.

The cash incentive was most effective at increasing physical activity, but this effect stopped after the cash payments stopped.

Another study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association2, investigated the effect of wearable technology on weight loss, body composition, fitness, physical activity, and dietary intake over 24 months among 470 adults aged 18-35.

The 470 participants were divided between a group that followed a conventional behavioral weight loss intervention and another that had the added advantage of wearable technology.

The result? Both groups had significant improvements in body composition, fitness, physical activity, and diet.

But the conventional weight-loss group had an average 5.9kg weight loss after 24 months in comparison to 3.5kg in the technology-enhanced group.

The PR engines of the tech companies behind the tracker market burst into life, with their own critique of the study results: “We would strongly caution against any conclusion that these findings apply to the wearable technology category as a whole.”

As health researchers, food companies, drug makers and doctors know very well, there’s no magic bullet when it comes to fighting overweight and obesity. It has to be tackled from many different angles. The tech industry has overlooked this complexity and may have over-promised in its excitement about its gadgets.

It’s people taking action that produces change. Technology is not “the answer”. Technology can at best be a handy tool to back up people’s own efforts – rather like a set of bathroom scales, perhaps.

1 Effectiveness of activity trackers with and without incentives to increase physical activity (TRIPPA): a randomized controlled trial. Finkelstein et al. Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol 2016;4: 983–95

2 Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss, The IDEA Randomized Clinical Trial, Jakicic et al. JAMA. 2016;316(11):1161-1171. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.12858

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Personalisation fast becoming the “new normal”

Posted on:
November 29, 2016
Julian Mellentin

personalisation-consumer-2When a giant food company invests $32 million in a startup focusing on personalized nutrition (NNB Key Trend 4), then you know that “personalization” has reached its tipping point.

The giant is Campbell, and the startup is Habit, launched by Neil Grimmer, the founder of Plum Organics, a baby food company which went from disruptive start-up to market leader.

Grimmer got his genome sequenced, his blood tested and, with the help of doctors, embarked on a customized nutrition programme. Six months later he “felt amazing,
had lost 11kg and had more energy”. Grimmer told NNB that “the genesis
for Habit was the idea of taking a very complicated system – the process I went through – and making it available to millions of Americans at a price point that will be accessible for all”.

Personalization is already a powerful and well-established trend and entrepreneurs like Grimmer are taking it to a whole new level.

Personalisation is about consumers “taking back control”. They want to feel more empowered and confident to create their own healthy eating patterns. It goes hand-in-hand with growing awareness that diet is a personal matter – and it’s another stage in the long slow death of “one size fits all” dietary recommendations.

Fragmentation (Key Trend 10) is in a cast-iron feedback loop with personalization, each feeding the other and reinforcing the trend. And both trends lead, very firmly, to premiumisation.

The key point for all companies is this: it is becoming increasingly difficult to create mass brands in the way we understood them in the past. If your company’s strategy is based on building high-volume business at mass- market prices, then you might have the wrong strategy. The future is a series of premium-priced niches.

The emergence of these trends has been clear for a long time, as we said back in 2003:

“What few would have suspected five years ago is that consumers’ lifestyle needs increasingly connect to the idea of products for individual consumption.

“This conjoins with the increasing fragmentation of consumers’ perceptions of what is healthy.

“Personalisation will be a science-based extension of the current trend, which is based on consumer experimentation and media information. What does this mean for brands? Such personalisation could simply reinforce the trend towards a market made up of a proliferation of niche health-enhancing products.”


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The 10 Key Growth Trends in the Business of Dairy Nutrition

Posted on:
November 2, 2016
Julian Mellentin

dairyktimageEvery two years we publish a detailed update of the Key Trends for the dairy industry. For us, a trend is only a Key Trend if it:

  • Drives growth
  • Will endure

If they can connect to the Key Trends, dairy companies have some good opportunities for profitable growth at good margins.

For example, as a result of new science about dairy’s health benefits, in some markets the most health-informed consumers are buying more full-fat products while sales of low-fat are flat or falling. In the US market, for example, the volume of whole milk sold at retail grew 5.5% in 2016 and the volume of zero/low-fat milk fell by 5.1% (IRI).

Cheese is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the science-based re-birth of dairy: There no negatives associated with cheese from the fat or sodium and it actually confers some health benefits.

Snacking is the biggest growth opportunity for cheese and a few companies are already getting more sales at higher margins from focusing on snacking. These brands enjoy better margins and surging sales.

One example is Sargento Balanced Breaks cheese snacks – a composite snack which include cheese and nuts in a single snack-pot. They achieved $67 million (€60 million) in retail sales in the US in their first year, making it one of the 10 most-successful new products launched in America in 2015

In fact single-serve and snackified products have to be part of every company’s strategy (Key Trend 1). This is one of the strongest ways to get better prices and better margins.

It may seem strange to include non-dairy among dairy trends. But like it or not it’s there, both as a threat and an opportunity. In the US, almond and coconut milks have already taken a 12% share of the liquid milk market.

Non-dairy plant milks successfully use the message of better digestive health as a way of positioning themselves against dairy.

Much of the negativity about dairy that is eroding dairy in some markets – and is going to erode dairy even more – arises from consumers seeking digestive wellness and associating it with dairy-free.


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