Food as Medicine: The Investment Potential in Personalized Nutrition

By Lynda Kiernan, Global AgInvesting Media (June 30, 2020)

(NOTE: This article first appeared in our sister publication, GAI Gazette)

These are indeed swiftly changing times. The emergence of COVID-19 and the spread of the pandemic has brought a dramatic shift in the relationship between people and their food. Over the past months, entire nations of consumers have been cooking at home - something that has deepened the connection between individuals and the foods they are preparing and feeding their families.

More than ever consumers are no longer passive players in the food supply chain as health and wellness are of utmost concern. And they are eyes wide open to the myriad of food suggestions and nutritional guidelines reverberating throughout the news and social media, as well as from health officials.

Yet, for decades, nutritional studies and guidelines have repeatedly offered contradictory information. The stalwart-but-vague food pyramid that had been the backbone of dietary recommendations for years has since been maligned as a lie.(1) Eggs have been labeled as horrible, or good for you depending on the source, with David Spence, a neurology professor at the University of Western Ontario, going so far as to state that eggs are nearly as harmful(2) to human health as smoking. Wine has been both good for your heart, and, in turn, contributing to health problems, as has chocolate. Butter has also landed on both sides of the debate, as have numerous other foods that consumers are told at one point are beneficial, and then conversely, are harmful.

All the while, the general physical condition of the population has worsened. An updated survey released last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) stated that 38.2 percent of the U.S. population aged 15 and above is now obese.(3) Furthermore, global obesity rates are expected to continue to climb ever higher with an astounding 47 percent of the U.S. population, 39 percent of the Mexican population, and 35 percent of the British population qualifying as obese by 2030.(4)

“Personalisation is about consumers ‘taking back control’,” according to Julian Mellentin, director of New Nutrition Business and author of the report 10 Key Trends in Food, Nutrition and Health 2017.(5) “They want to feel more empowered and confident to create their own healthy eating patterns.”

As consumers begin to shift their concept of health from treatment to one of prevention, many are making a connection between their food choices and their overall quality of life. And in this era of rapidly evolving and developing biotechnology, personalized nutrition is emerging as an intriguing opportunity for both consumers and investors in the food tech space.

To Each Their Own

So what exactly is personalized nutrition? Personalized nutrition conceptually aligns with personalized medicine, and is the intersection of wellness, technology, and food.

Building upon the foundation laid down for years by nutritionists, personalized nutrition(6), raises the idea to a new level by examining and analyzing a person’s genetic profile, sleep patterns, dietary habits, activity levels and patterns, and even their gut biome and metabolome(7) to create individualized dietary plans that are best suited to each person’s ability to improve their health and lower their risks associated with certain preventable conditions such as heart disease, blood sugar spikes, and type 2 diabetes through the foods they eat.

Although there is admittedly still much we don’t know about the connection and interaction between our genes and the foods we eat, personalized nutrition, and by proxy, functional foods and beverages, have been noted as being some of the key drivers(8) in the evolution of the food industry for 2018.

A development that perhaps reflects and reinforces the growing credibility of personalized nutrition is the number of hospitals across the U.S. that are incorporating food(9) into their patients’ protocols for both preventing and treating illnesses. Some even establishing their own food pantries or farmer’s markets where patients can fill a “prescription” from their doctor for functional foods.

This practice not only improves the patient/doctor experience by prompting doctors to treat the whole patient and not simply a single ailment, but is also cost effective for the facility, according to Dr. Lisa Harris, CEO of Eskenazi Health, a public health system in Indianapolis, who told the Wall Street Journal, “It is much less expensive to help people be well than to address the effects of chronic disease.”(10)

Flags are Flying

Despite being named a key food trend, as is often the case, there is an education and adoption gap between the point a food technology reaches the market, and its broad commercialization and full realization of its potential. However, there are an increasing number of startups led by science-driven innovators that are emerging and planting their flags on this new frontier.

Possibly one of the leaders in the nascent category is San Francisco-based Habit - a startup that compiles a nutritional action plan based on an individual’s unique biology, metabolism, and personal goals.

In October 2016, Campbell Soup Company became a sole investor in the company, committing $32 million(11) to the startup prior to the launch of its beta test program, under which customers are sent an at-home test kit that measures more than 70 biomarkers including DNA variations. Once the results are analyzed, the company uses the data to build a personalized diet plan that will be created and made available to each user.

At the time, Habit Founder Neil Grimmer explained how the company was founded on personal experience.(12) “I did genetic tests. I did blood work,” explained Grimmer. “I analyzed how my body processed all kinds of foods,” explains Grimmer. “With the help of physicians and nutritionists, I started tuning into my body’s signals that had been picked up from all the tests I had done.”

Another is DnaNudge, a UK-based startup that believes “one of the keys to unlocking the optimal diet is in our DNA.” With the goal of helping consumers adjust their food purchases to better suit their genetic profile, users submit a DNA sample from a mouth swab and load it onto their own disposable DnaCartridge. The analysis performed by this cartridge can then be downloaded onto a DnaBand - a wearable much like a bracelet. At the market, the user can scan each food choice, and the DnaNudge App responds with either a thumbs up, meaning the choice aligns with their genetics, or a thumbs down, with recommendations for alternate choices.

Yet another example, born out of the University of Toronto, is Nutrigenomix, a startup looking to provide health care providers and their patients with new ways to incorporate personalized nutrition into improving health. Similar to other companies, test kits are provided that give doctors and health care providers insights that allow them to counsel their patients on dietary choices that best suit their genetic makeup.

Personalized nutrition and function foods are also going mainstream. In 2019, Mars agreed to acquire a majority stake in German functional food company foodspring from Fonterra, which expressed expectations of a gain of US$43 million through the sale. Other global CPGs such as Campbell Soup and PepsiCo have also diversified their hand into the functional food space. But perhaps the strongest signal of the validity of functional foods trend is that investors are deploying capital across the category.

A Dedicated Fund

High profile investors such as GV (formerly Google Ventures), S2G, Tao Capital, Adreessen Horowitz, CAVU, PowerPlant Ventures, Clearlake Capital, Middleland Capital, Kellogg’s Eighteen94, GreatPoint Ventures, Closed Loop Capital, and Seventure Partners are just a sampling of private equity firms that have made capital commitments in the function food space. But what could signify personalized nutrition’s validity, not only as a trend to watch but as an investment class than the launch of a dedicated fund?

In September 2018, Ruti Alon, former senior life sciences partner with Pitango Venture Capital, and Ilanit Kabessa-Cohen, a 20-year veteran in the consumer food sector, announced the official launch of Medstrada,(13) Israel’s first venture capital fund targeting personalized nutrition and food tech.

Given Alon’s deep experience in the life sciences space, and Kabessa-Cohen’s background in the food industry, they are aware of the role that food plays in a healthy life and the prevention or delay of the onset of diseases, but also in the general well-being of consumers.

“The food industry is one of the world’s largest industries, with an $8 billion turnover, compared with $2 billion for the pharma industry and $1 billion for medical devices,” Kabessa-Cohen told Globes.(14) “These are also giant industries, but in order to make substantial profits in this industry, you need something special, and this something is usually supported by technology.”

As our understanding of food, technology, and ourselves continues to expand, we also will gain insight into how the three interact. This knowledge has the potential to re-write decades of nutritional and dietary guidelines, and will also undoubtedly open new and exciting windows of opportunity for investment in the category, and create a plethora of new, nutritious ways for consumers to enjoy healthy foods

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lynda Kiernan is editor with GAI Media, and is managing editor and daily contributor for Global AgInvesting’s AgInvesting Weekly News and Agtech Intel News, and HighQuest Group's Oilseed & Grain News. She is also a contributor to the GAI Gazette. She can be reached at lkiernan@globalaginvesting.com.

SOURCES

1 Duquette, Jay, “That Whole Food Pyramid Thing? Yea That’s a Lie”. August 11, 2016. https://medium.com/@jayduquette/that-whole-food-pyramid-thing-yea-thats-a-lie-f06716417639 (accessed October 16, 2018).

2 “Egg yolk consumption almost as bad as smoking when it comes to atherosclerosis”. EurekaAlert.org. August 13, 2012. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-08/uowo-eyc081312.php (accessed October 15, 2018).

3 “Obesity Update 2017” OECD.org http://www.oecd.org/health/obesity-update.htm (accessed October 18, 2018).

4 Ibid.

5 “10 Key Trends in Food, Nutrition & Health 2018”. New Nutrition Business. November 2017. https://www.new-nutrition.com/keytrend?id=55 (accessed October 12, 2018).

6 Webster, Allison, “Personalized Nutrition: Ready for Prime-Time?”. Food Insight. January 31, 2018 https://www.foodinsight.org/personalized-nutrition-dna-diet (accessed October 15, 2018).

7 Metabolome. https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/metabolome. (accessed October 12, 2018).

8 “10 Key Trends in Food, Nutrition & Health 2018”.

9 Lagnado, Lucette. “Take Two Aspirin – and a Serving of Kale”. The Wall Street Journal. October 22, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/take-two-aspirinand-a-serving-of-kale-1540212952?mc_cid=d58ee2e7f4&mc_eid=28c94e97db (accessed October 15, 2018).

10 Ibid.

11 Kiernan, Lynda. “Campbell Soup Invests $32 Million in Personalized Nutrition Startup”. GAI News. October 26, 2016. http://www.globalaginvesting.com/campbell-soup-invests-32m-personalized-nutrition-startup-habit/ (accessed October 17, 2018)

12 “The Personalized Nutrition Revolution Starts Now”. October 25, 2016. https://www.campbellsoupcompany.com/newsroom/news/2016/10/25/personalized-nutrition-revolution-starts-now/ (accessed October 18, 2018).

13 Kiernan, Lynda. “Israel’s First Food Tech and Personalized Nutrition VC Fund Launches”. GAI News. September 7, 2018. http://www.globalaginvesting.com/israels-first-food-tech-personalized-nutrition-vc-fund-launches/ (accessed October 12, 2018).

14 Weinreb, Gail. “Ruti Alon Unveils Food-Tech VC Fund Medstrada”. Globes. September 4, 2018. https://en.globes.co.il/en/article-ruti-alon-unveils-food-tech-vc-fund-medstrada-1001252492 (accessed October 16, 2018).

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