In my work as a digital health consultant and autoimmune patient advocate, I often reference the convergence of new scientific discoveries (genomics, microbiomics, epigenetics) and technological advances (artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive analytics). My recent attendance at the Future Food-Tech Summit in New York affirmed that these same innovative forces are reshaping the food industry. From its consumer-centric perspective, the Future Food-Tech Summit prompted me to think of food in new ways: as connection, medicine, and information.
Food as connection
Food is social—we see this when we eat out for a special occasion, go grocery shopping with a friend, or learn a new recipe from our parents. Social media is affecting our food experiences. Online food communities promote self-expression and exploration of new food experiences, empowering consumers. The proliferation of interactive recipe sites on the web is only the tip of the iceberg, but today, online, your Indian grandmother can show me how to make Barfi and I can share my family’s tapioca recipe with Filipino cooks I’ve never met.
According to market research provided by Steve French of NMI, consumers are seeking customized food solutions that address their unique needs. Personalization has been a significant trend in many industries for decades, and the food and beverage industries are joining this movement.
Consumer demand is growing; while not yet common in practice, personalized nutrition is showing potential in healthcare. Adjusting micronutrients according to an individual’s genome or gut microbiome are two examples of approaches moving us towards food as medicine.
Food as medicine
Through my work with the autoimmune community, I have seen how changes in diet can alter our health trajectories. NMI also explored food as a personalized form of medicine.
NMI’s classification of different kinds of food consumers is summarized below. This continuum of views ranges from the 25% of the population who are proactive about their health and use both food and supplements as tools for prevention, to the 17% who are least concerned with healthy eating.
This reminds us that one size does not fit all when it comes to health and wellness programs.
In an NMI general population survey, 70% of consumers reported interest in a multivitamin tailored to their individual vitamin, mineral, and nutrient needs. Customized supplements represent a market opportunity that may be a positive step towards personalized healthcare.
With regards to “ethical consumption”, consumer choices take into account the larger community and environment. “Sustainability” is a priority, as is consumer interest in “green” versions of food and beverages, as variously defined.
In an NMI general population survey comparing plant- and meat-based proteins,
- 30% of consumers agreed that they are trying to eat more plant-based protein,
- 34% that plant-based protein is healthier, and
- 42% that plant-based protein is more environmentally-friendly.
Based on these results, plant-based protein products and additives may be an emerging industry to watch.
Food as information
Thinking about food as information was new to me, but this growing sub-sector is already valuable to both the supply and demand sides of the food industry.
Science is transforming food safety. In an analysis of the role of the FDA, Susan Mayne of CFSAN revealed what health-tech circles sometimes overlook—technology informs food safety innovations. New techniques such as whole genome sequencing are now being used in tracking foodborne disease outbreaks and other food safety issues more efficiently.
For example, whole genome sequencing can reveal a common source among illnesses by matching the DNA sequences of causative agents. For example, Listeria outbreaks can now be detected when as few as two people get sick; outbreaks can be identified and stopped while they are still small.
In response to reports of foodborne illness and concerns over food allergies, consumer demand for labeling information has increased. Consumers want to know where foods are from, how they are produced, what ingredients they contain, how old they are, etc., so they can make informed, healthy decisions.
Dean Wiltse, CEO of Foodlogiq, advocated for transparency in food safety management with questions such as:
- How can technology increase traceability and food safety?
- How is the digitization of supply chain management helping food companies display greater transparency?
For example, the Hershey Company has used this digitization to increase transparency by implementing their Sourcemap, an interactive map that allows consumers to view locations of manufacturing facilities and sources of ingredients.
Lance Koone of Davis Wright Tremaine further addressed the issue of transparency, this time with respect to blockchain technology.
A blockchain is a decentralized database, an independent cloud ledger that digitally records transactions. Information is transferred directly between transacting parties; intermediaries, such as banks, are not necessary. Records are permanent, public, and exceptionally secure because no party controls or can change the information.
According to Wright, the major flaws of our food industry today are a lack of transparency, food waste, and contamination. These affect our environment, economy, and well-being; ~30% of food is wasted globally, costing a total of $940 billion, and 1 in 6 Americans get sick from contaminated food.
Blockchain approaches may present solutions:
Blockchain can digitally document product information at all stages, including farm origination data, expiration dates, and storage conditions. This permanent, public record holds producers accountable and may increase consumer confidence.
With wide distribution and direct transfer of information, blockchain can improve how food is tracked, transported, and sold. Food waste and costs may be reduced.
Increased efficiency also improves food safety—problem detection and product recall are faster, resulting in fewer contamination incidents.
As the use of blockchain for supply chain purposes increases, authentication, permissioning, and payment methods within this system must be more clearly defined. The question also remains: Is the food industry ready to move towards this transparency?
Some innovative food start-ups
Putting on my equity analyst hat, I explored existing start-up companies to envision future market trends across the food supply chain:
- GoParrot is using artificial intelligence to streamline restaurant ordering across multiple social platforms.
- io is coordinating IoT sensors and blockchain technology to increase transparency across the food supply chain.
- Genius Foods is developing functional ingredients from underused crops to promote nutrition and affordability (e.g., swapping fatty ingredients for cheaper, healthier alternatives).
- Cuddl’Up is using data to maximize restaurant sales performance.
For someone just learning about “Food as Connection” and “Food as Information”, the Future Food-Tech meeting organizers piqued my curiosity about the issues surrounding food safety and transparency.
Yet, given my interests in personalized nutrition and chronic and autoimmune diseases, the companies that I found most interesting include:
- TNO, a Dutch collaborative research center using personalized design, predictive models, and advanced data profiling, while safeguarding data privacy and security, to create better health outcomes. I would love to see them help tackle “The Autoimmune Abyss“.
- DayTwo is commercializing our early understanding of the need for personalized nutrition by offering microbiome DNA sequencing. Further scientific research (see Personalized Nutrition to Glycemic Response) supports that standard diet recommendations may not work for some people.
- Coming full circle, Wholesome Wave is working to make produce more affordable and empower underserved consumers to make healthier food choices. As one application, doctors can write prescriptions for healthy produce that patients can then fill at participating markets or stores.
Given this wide array of innovations, perhaps the next Future Food-Tech meetings will increasingly incorporate start-up companies and research that focus on food as medicine.