Veggies

Why would the CEOs of Campbell’s Soup, Tyson Foods and Whole Foods present at Fortune Brainstorm Health, one of the biggest health conferences of the year? Because food is now being viewed as medicine, and a conference on health is not complete without a discussion of what we are putting in our bodies.

I returned from Fortune Brainstorm Health last week and was pleased to see an increased focus on food and its impact on health. The conference is an explosion of health topics, ranging from the science of sleep to the role of AR in pain management. Thought leaders like former Vice President Joe Biden, Thrive Global Founder Arianna Huffington and author David B Agus congregate to discuss technology, policy and general trends that are shaping the way we become healthier as humans.

Food and nourishment played a central role in the discussion. Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell’s Soup, and the new Tyson Foods CEO Tom Hayes, discussed the role of appealing to changing consumer demands – all looking for fresh and simple ingredients and more nutritious and healthy foods. The rub is that consumers don’t want to sacrifice dollars or taste for fresh foods. They don’t want to sacrifice taste for healthfulness.

For example, consumers want less sodium in their food, but they also want it to taste exactly the same. These companies are putting their money where their mouths are, and the mouths of millions of others. This sodium reduction request inspired Morrison to embark on a global quest to evaluate sodium substitutes in foods to retain taste while lowering sodium. To appeal to the demand for fresh and healthy food, Tyson has committed to removing all antibiotics from the flagship chicken products.

The founder and CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, also spoke to the challenge of both selling the healthiest food options and staying profitable. Before Whole Foods, Mackey started a grocery called Safer Way Natural Foods. The offerings at Safer Way were fresh and healthy foods, and consumers had no options to buy caffeine, processed foods or foods with sugar – basically anything that could be considered a vice. The result? Very few sales. Mackey figured out companies have to meet the consumer in the middle. Food preferences are habits built over many years. Changing behavior to eat healthier foods does not happen overnight. I imagine Whole Foods was born to meet the consumer in the middle by espousing the ideals of healthy eating of whole foods but also offering products that appealed to the mass consumer. The result? An $11.6 billion market cap for Whole Foods.

At Nima, we think health starts with what you put on your fork. We know how hard it is for people to change eating habits. Many Nima users have recently found out they need to avoid gluten and suddenly mealtime requires a lot more thought processing – reading ingredients, asking questions and thinking ahead of time to make sure options are available so you can eat what’s best for you. The great thing about the diagnosis of a food sensitivity or allergy is the knowledge of knowing your body has these reactions and what you need to do to stay healthy. Compared to millions of people, Nima community members have a comparative advantage in knowing what food they need to avoid to stay healthy – the challenge is making sure the food on your plate is what you were promised on the label or menu.

For most Americans, we don’t know exactly what food we should be eating to stay healthy. Millions are walking about feeling perpetually subpar and not realizing a connection to their diet.

Because of this lack of personal knowledge, precision medicine was another key theme at Brainstorm Health, defined as the customization of healthcare to provide solutions that fit a patient’s needs. Campbell’s has made four acquisitions in the last five years in the health and wellness space. The company also invested in a nutrition tech startup called Habit, which pairs nutrition lab testing with personalized diets. Morrison attributed losing 20 lbs. to Habit as she learned her biology required a different type of diet than what she was eating. The future of food is precision nutrition, as a one size fits all food pyramid is clearly not working in the United States.

As we get smarter and more knowledgeable about our own biology, we can better match custom diets to maximize our human potential. And as we figure out what’s best for our bodies, this year’s conference demonstrated that just maybe Big Food is ready to meet those needs.

-Shireen Yates, CEO and co-founder, Nima