A bowl of saladClose to half of deaths in the United States are preventable with diet and lifestyle changes. Sixty-four percent of Americans are trying to make healthier food choices but still struggle with knowing what and how much to eat. The fate of our nation hangs in the balance of what’s at the end of our fork. 

I had the honor of attending a few food tech and digital health industry events in recent months, including The Wall Street Journal Global Food Forum and re-Think Food. It was impossible to separate the discussion of food and health at all these events – a sign that Americans are viewing food and nutrition as crucial to health more than ever before.

In 2016, we saw clear trends emphasizing the connection between food and health around consumer brand engagement, food transparency and brand integrity, which provide gigantic opportunities for the food tech sector to improve both food systems and public health through innovation.

Diet and nutrition are more personalized

We are learning more about how food affects our health and therefore demanding more information about the food we are consuming.

Today, food preferences and sensitivities mostly drive dietary preferences, in which people mostly learn what they need to avoid by a fairly immediate adverse reaction to the food they consume. In the future, preferences will be driven by the effect of food on longer-term health consequences and opportunities. Dietary preferences will emerge that are based on staying healthy, customized to an individual’s needs and personalized diets. In addition to avoiding foods that affect us negatively, we will be selecting foods that unleash our optimum selves proactively.

Nima sensor testing a sconeAt Nima, we’re launching a sensor that detects gluten in food to serve the estimated 20 million people in the U.S who are actively avoiding gluten for health reasons. We aim to create a sensor for most other allergens, with peanut, milk and tree nuts next in the pipeline. Eventually, Nima will be a device that can test for anything that you care about as you navigate the optimal diet for your health.

Other food tech startups are using spectroscopy and more advanced consumer diagnostics to give people a more continuous snapshot of what’s going on in their health and how food is impacting it. In addition to snapshots from blood and saliva samples, consumers will have more information about their microbiome, through the services provided by companies like Ubiome. We will continue to grow a larger data set of human health so your own data can be better contextualized – you’ll be able to determine what is normal vs. abnormal with increased accuracy and track changes in lifestyle with continuous health data without going to the doctor’s office.

Food establishments and grocery stores are getting real about food transparency

Woman checking ingredient labels in grocery store aiselConsumers are demanding more information about what’s in their food, and in response, recently passed laws now mandate restaurant chains to publish calorie information. States like Massachusetts have also passed laws so that every restaurant has to have at least one allergen expert on staff who has had specific allergen awareness training. Eating establishments at universities are also under pressure for better food labelling and awareness after lawsuits were filed.

Companies, like Panera, have also done this proactively given consumer demand and, in 2014, mandated that all caloric information was published on the menu, before any laws were passed. Beyond just listing ingredients used, businesses are working to clean up their food sources now that they are on public display. Panera is also working to eliminate artificial ingredients in their food, while Chick-fil-A is vowing to move to antibiotic-free chicken by 2019. Perdue has already gone almost completely antibiotic-free, reacting to consumer demand for cleaner and more natural food. 

The opportunity for food providers is to be proactive about communication regarding what’s in their food and how it’s made. As consumers place more of a demand on knowing what’s in their food and where it comes from, preferring clean and natural food, we will see more efforts to simplify supply chains, and reduce ingredients. Imagine if stores could confirm with one scan if food is actually organic and confirm that the fish is from a certain region and not farm-raised. Target, IDEO and MIT have partnered together to develop data through new food tech to promote transparency, access and trust of food. Soon, grocery stores can scan food, and the food itself becomes a barcode of information about what’s in the food and where it comes from. 

Quality and convenience drives U.S. food culture

Homemade mayoLately, we have been experiencing the slow food movement, cherishing farm-to-fork, as consumer demand for food transparency and minimal, real ingredients has increased over the past 20 years. But if you don’t live on a farm, how can the average American gain access to high-quality food and still have time to put it on the table after a 10-hour workday?

Technology introduced the on-demand food economy with the rise of smartphones and online ordering, bringing us raw ingredients, groceries and fully cooked meals to the comfort and convenience of your home – merging slow food with fast technology. Companies such as Blue Apron, Sun Basket and Munchery are leading the charge.

There’s a also a surge of innovation that will bring traditional commercial equipment to the comfort of the home as well. Juicero introduced the power of a commercial juicer to your home, while Teforia has automated traditional tea service to optimize the power of drinking tea at home. Innovation will continue to push better quality foods into more homes as we adopt smart devices in the kitchen.

Better food, health take a village

The Harvard Medical School and School of Public Health suggest that improving health can be achieved only by leveraging multiple touch-points: community, consumer, employees and the environment.

The case study of changing health in small town in Finland, where it took decades to initiate a real change from a meat- and fat-centric diet to one richer with fruits and vegetables, explicitly shows the challenge of changing eating habits. As a collective whole, we need to change the way we approach food and look at our system from different angles if we want to live longer and healthier lives.  

We continue to see unprecedented partnerships between the medical community, brands, and academic institutions to address better health through food. Because eating is habit and so influenced by our environment and upbringing, we will see efforts to address better education, food access and awareness from multiple societal angles. For instance, the Future coLab of food is emphasizing food access, understanding and trust. An example of a potential innovation out of this collaboration could be new technology to instantly scan food to evaluate the accuracy of the label and screen for pathogens or bacteria or even a new guideline on what is optimally healthy. 

The opportunities for food tech to impact the health of our nation are massive in each channel. We just have to ask ourselves – who else is up for the challenge with us?

-Shireen Yates, CEO and co-founder, Nima