WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
As genetic sequencing gets cheaper and easier companies are seeing an opportunity to cash in on it.
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In 2017 a company called Food Ink, who used 3D printers to print gourmet food for its customers at £250 per head, opened a pop up store in London, and now the company that brought you instant noodles, Kitkats, milk chocolate, Nespresso, and Rocky Road ice cream have announced that they’re worried about your health, so worried in fact that they may soon start pivoting the entire company in a new healthier and more personal direction. Nestle, the world’s largest food company, has announced that it’s joined the so called “Personalized nutrition” trend where the food the company makes, and that you ultimately buy and eat, is specifically designed and tailored for you based on your genetic makeup. And in Nestle’s case their first move into this new territory has been created using a combination of Artificial Intelligence (AI), home DNA testing kits, the modern obsession with Instagramming food, and Nespresso like food “pods.”
The program, which has been trialled in Japan, could provide the Swiss company with a wealth of data about customers’ wellness and diet as it pivots toward “consumers who are seeking to improve their health and longevity.” Note that last word, while the messaging is subtle it underscores a potentially major shift in strategy for the company who want to move their customers from buying food to instantly satisfy a craving to becoming your “personalised nutritional partner for life.” Say hello to an entirely new form of subscription based food programs.
In Japan, some 100,000 users of the “Nestle Wellness Ambassador” program send pictures of their food via the popular Line app that then recommends lifestyle changes and specially formulated supplements. The program can cost $600 a year for capsules, that make nutrient-rich teas, smoothies and other products such as vitamin fortified snacks, and a home DNA testing kit to provide samples for blood to help identify susceptibility to common ailments like high cholesterol or diabetes.
“Most of the personalized nutrition industry [today] is driven by smaller companies, that’s why it was fairly limited,” said Ray Fujii, a partner at L.E.K. Consulting in Japan. “Nestle is taking a further step.”
The DNA and blood tests are conducted by outside companies that then give the full results to consumers. Halmek Ventures, for example, provides the blood test and Japan based Genesis Healthcare performs the genetic analysis.
Nestle’s program is part of a change in direction for the 152 year old company, which sold off its U.S. candy unit this year amid falling demand for sugary treats. Nestle has made a spate of investments targeted at healthier options including vegetarian meal maker Sweet Earth Foods and meal-delivery service Freshly. The company bought Canadian dietary supplements maker Atrium Innovations in March for $2.3 billion, its biggest medical-nutrition purchase in more than a decade.
“Health problems associated with food and nutrition have become a big issue,” said Kozo Takaoka, head of the company’s business in Japan, in an interview in Tokyo. “Nestle must address that on a global basis and make it our mission for the 21st century.” He said the wellness segment could eventually account for half of Nestle’s sales in Japan.
The investments come with the burgeoning interest in so-called Nutraceuticals – food derived ingredients that are processed and packaged as medicine or wellness aids – among consumers that are increasingly sceptical about the health impacts of mass manufactured and processed food. Nestle employs more than a hundred scientists in areas including cell biology, gastrointestinal medicine and genomics at the Nestle Institute of Health Sciences and has been developing tools to analyze and measure people’s nutrient levels.
“Decades in the future, all companies will probably have to be doing it,” said Jon Cox, an analyst at Kepler Cheuvreux. “The industry has probably had a setback as consumers also want natural and less processed products while adding supplements is seen as artificial or creating Frankenstein food.
Some nutritionists though are sceptical that tailored diet plans based around supplements are useful and that they may have more of a psychological effect than a medical one.
“Nestle’s program is designed to personalize diets in ways unlikely to be necessary,” said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University who isn’t linked to the company. “If we think something will make us healthier, we are likely to feel healthier.”
One of the early adopters of personalised nutrition among the food companies was Campbell Soup, which invested $32 million in 2016 in San Francisco based startup Habit, that uses DNA and blood profiles to make diet recommendations, as well as offering nutritional coaching and tailored meal-kits. And as a result Big Food is now starting to tap into expertise in AI and genetics to help them navigate a sea change in the way consumers make choices, which has upended industries including transportation, with Uber, to television, with Netflix, and more.
“In the 21st century, innovation is using the internet and AI to solve problems that our customers didn’t realize they had, or problems they had given up on,” said Takaoka, who is famous in Japan for making the KitKat chocolate wafer an iconic local snack by adding green tea and other flavors.
He said big consumer companies can no longer rely on the power of their brands to woo a generation that grew up with e-commerce.
“They just search for things, they don’t pick the brand,” he said. “When people talk about brand marketing, I’m just thinking ‘what’s that?’”
Hitomi Kasuda, a 47-year-old freelance writer, says drinking Nestle’s kale smoothie and other health drinks as much as four times a week “helps her feel better about not eating enough vegetables,” and while she gave up using the chat function on the app, she adds she’s keen to get the DNA test done.
“There’s probably a lot of things I don’t realize about my health that I can discover in a blood and genetics test,” said Kasuda, who lives south of Tokyo in Yokohama. “Even if I feel healthy, I’d like to know more about the quality of my health and how to improve it through diet.”
In his 2016 book “Nutrition for a Better Life,” former Nestle chief Peter Brabeck-Letmathe proposed that personalized diet and health programs were the future of nutrition. “Using a capsule similar to a Nespresso, people will be able to take individual nutrient cocktails or prepare their food via 3D printers according to electronically recorded health recommendations,” he wrote.
Two years later, Japanese subscribers in the wellness program now drink nutrient-fortified teas dispensed in capsules using a product similar to Nespresso, Nestle’s trademark coffee machine.
“We’re getting consumer buy-in because we live in a hedonistic, me-first kind of world,” said Peter Jones, a nutritional scientist at the University of Manitoba in Canada. “This is going to be the manifestation of the future. The one size fits all products and platforms are a relic of the past.”