This article was originally published on forbes.com and can be viewed here.
My debut article in Forbes Tech was “How Did We Get So Fat And Is There Hope?” While not a common storyline Forbes readers expect to find in the Tech section, it resonated because obesity is a visible and obvious problem. Our current solutions — weight loss programs from giants like Weight Watchers International and Jenny Craig, an explosion in fitness companies like Life Time Fitness, Inc., Under Armour, Nike and DICK’S Sporting Goods Inc., and medical solutions like bariatric surgery and lap band procedures — are doing little to stem the tide.
Of the two biggest keys to better health — better food and more movement — improving food holds the biggest opportunity for consumers to take charge of their health, for new and existing companies to make meaningful revenue, and for technology to have a significant impact.
Consider this: The U.S. spending on healthcare healthcare-related costs is $2.9 trillion annually. Consumer spending on food (in-home and out of home combined) is a staggering $1.4 trillion annually. Food, in fact, is the largest expenditure outside of healthcare that significantly impacts our overall health. It makes sense that if we want to move the needle on population health, we should focus on food and consider leveraging food in the healthcare space on a more formal basis.
I believe within the next 5 years we are going to see an increasing number of disruptive healthcare players start creating combined health and food categories that help spur fundamental health changes in the U.S. Let’s take a look at some food trends that will enable this new health:food relationship, and I’ll close by speculating on what needs to be done next.
Sustainable growing methods are bringing fresh food production into the city.
Hydroponics and aquaponics are two trends that are helping improve food production with the help of technology. Both of these techniques require substantially less water to grow crops, and redefine where farming can actually take place. Companies like Gotham Greens, with rooftop hydroponic greenhouses in the heart of Brooklyn and Queens in New York (adding Chicago this year), are growing food closer to where it ultimately will be purchased and consumed. In the process, they’re dramatically reducing a huge driver of food cost, transportation.
Farm to table makes buying local simple, reliable and profitable.
Rather than relying on large grocers and a vast and powerful network of food distributors to move food from producers to markets, consumers have been establishing direct relationships to local farms and producers for the past decade. E-commerce solutions allow consumers to order directly from their favorite local suppliers.
From this farm direct movement has come a new generation of fresh food delivery companies. Greenling here in Austin and Urban Organic in the New York metropolitan area are doing the legwork for busy consumers by consolidating local produce and goods from a network of growers and small businesses into weekly home delivery boxes that feature not only the freshest in-season produce, but artisan breads and cheese and other popular local food items.
Cooking at home has modernized.
North of $100 million in venture capital has made its way into meal and meal kit delivery companies in the past couple of years. Plated has garnered close to $50 Direct are two other national companies securing significant funding in this space. All offer subscription meal services that deliver million in Series A and B funding alone. Blue Apron and Fresh portioned, pre-packaged meals that are ready to cook out of the box. The promise is simple: they’ll do the planning and prep work, and consumers get the credit for cooking healthy and tasteful meals.
More confident cooks can now find support from a host of recipe companies who have been aggregating recipes into massive, searchable online libraries. This current generation of recipe aggregators, like Key Ingredient, which has over 2 million recipes, also allows users to add their own recipes, and will, for a fee, transcribe treasured family recipes and load them into subscribers’ private cookbooks.
What’s even better about recipe sites and apps is their increasing use of videos to show how to cook the food. This is key to helping people gain confidence in their culinary prowess. We are big fan of Chef Steps in our house, with the cinema quality video instructions, which are easier to follow than text-only recipes.
Even ovens are getting high tech. The June Intelligent Oven uses computer vision and object recognition to determine if food is done cooking and even has a scale inside the oven. It is powered by an NVIDIA K1 processor and bursts to a supercomputer.
Eating out will never be the same.
Basic websites and apps like Yelp let consumers to search for particular types of restaurants and cuisines quickly and easily. Filters for all kinds of preferences, from allergy awareness to specialty diets like Paleo and gluten free, along with location-based services, show us what we want to eat and how close it is. Even more relevant is consumers’ ability to get calorie counts and nutritional information on specific menu items from apps like Calorie King, Restaurant Calorie Counter, and wildly popular weight loss app Lose It. It has become much easier to be informed about the quality of the food we’re eating.
Technology is fundamentally changing how we interact with food. We can pick the food we want, when we want it and have it delivered to our home or workplace. We can cook from raw ingredients or have the prep work done for us. We can pick what we want to eat before we get to the restaurant. We can learn to cook from professional chefs without leaving our kitchen. And we can know exactly how many calories we’re consuming, the nutritional value of the dish, and how that relates to our daily caloric goals.
All these shifts mean consumers suddenly have a new set of tools to follow dietary guidelines suggested by their doctors. They missing link, still, is a vital connection between food consumption and traditional healthcare. The final step toward improved health is creating these new connections. It’ll take a few bold moves from some key health care innovators to make the leap. What needs to be done?
We need to get serious about prescribing food.
It’s no secret that a healthy diet can prevent a host of chronic diseases in addition to curbing obesity. But it’s not in the physician’s purview to actually prescribe a better diet the way he can a pill to manage cholesterol or blood pressure. This absolutely needs to change. There’s a vast difference between suggesting a patient eat better and actually prescribing a diet plan that a doctor expects a patient to follow.
We need to leverage health insurance spending to help cover the costs of prescribed foods.
Prescription medicines are covered expenses in the fight to manage chronic diseases. Why not food? With the explosion of meal and meal kit delivery programs, we have the ability to deliver exactly the food we need patients to eat to their doorsteps. In a smart world, health insurance should cover some of the cost of specific food purchases that are intended to help a consumer manage (and ultimately prevent) a chronic condition.
I can imagine a bold healthcare player partnering with a meal kit company to deliver condition-specific meals directly to consumers at discounted prices. And I can imagine a meal kit delivery company like Plated, Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers International being more than willing to partner with a healthcare provider to offer discounted food plans to a captive audience. I can even see companies like DICK’S Sporting Goods Inc., Nike and Under Armour getting into the food game. After all, we need the right kind of fuel to power more active lifestyles. What I can’t imagine is why no one is doing this yet.
We need to reward consumers for their good food behavior.
We have the ability to track purchases and consumption to such a granular degree that it wouldn’t take much more effort to start rewarding people for the good and healthy food habits they are cultivating. I wrote about this in a previous Moor Insights & Strategy blog, but it bears repeating. There really are no monetary incentives for being healthy. As I point out above, healthy food isn’t part of a traditional health plan like prescription medication is, even though food a critical component of health care. Imagine if insurance companies actually incentivized folks to be healthier by lowering their deductibles for reaching certain health milestones, or purchasing the kinds of food that maintain health. (Think I’m crazy? Look at what John Hancock is doing with its Vitality program. Their flaw: it’s a perk inside a life insurance product, still too far removed from everyday living to have a significant impact.)
The bottom line is that we can’t continue to separate healthcare and food. When we eat the right foods, health care costs can be more easily controlled. When we eat the wrong foods, we pay for it many times over. We now have the tools, the information and the technology to make major inroads into health via food production, delivery and consumption.
Let’s get to work.