At the Future Food Tech conference in San Francisco late March, the breakout topic of discussion was the personalized nutrition trend. Startups such as Habit, 3TandAi and big food companies alike (Campbell Soup, Nestle placing bets on personalized nutrition) called it the “Next Big Opportunity.” I was part of a panel on ingredient reformulation that inescapably led to a confab about personalized nutrition. We agreed that consumers are increasingly turning to individually tailored diets and that the food industry needs to invest in scalable food delivery solutions.
A growing number of tech startups are working on biosensors, wearables, biomarkers in DNA analysis, and other mechanisms to collect personal insights to match you to your perfect diet. Habit collects DNA and blood samples while testing one’s response to a formulated smoothie in order to match you to one of seven main diet categories like “protein seeker” or “fat seeker.” Habit has developed more than 5,000 recipe recommendations based on these categories.
We know by now that diet is not one-size fits all. Habit’s simplification efforts are understandable given the constraints of prevailing food formats, but personalized nutrition is not a 5,000-fits-seven problem either. Personalization means matching food to multifaceted individuals with needs that change over time. Add to biological preferences other drivers such as disease prevention, disorders, religious restrictions, familial structure, and one’s lifestyle and the inventory of recipe recommendations would need to grow exponentially.
It would be unworkable for a company to provide such a variety of product with fresh foods. It is difficult to predict ingredient inventory levels. Fresh foods spoil quickly. It would require an army of chefs and assemblers to create personalized orders in a timely fashion even if they worked from an inventory of recipes. It is no wonder that Habit stopped its fresh meal delivery service in San Francisco late last year after a brief trial run. The fresh model is not scalable.
In the vacuum of personalized meal delivery, sending individuals out on their own to wade through the store to analyze nutritional labels and match them to a recommended diet plan is a fool’s errand. Only the most disciplined will succeed. Most of us are too busy and scattered in our lives to manage such a complex task. The right food choices must be accessible to consumers in handy packages. The convenience nudges us into making the right choices.
Consider an approach in which we destruct meals into shelf-stable meal parts or components. Typical meals are made up of proteins, starches, and vegetables. Within Habit’s 5,000 recommended recipes there are likely multiple applications of such items as salmon filets, rice pilaf and steamed broccoli—each are individual meal components that could suit a variety of dietary plans. Under this approach, Habit customers, with guidance from their nutritionist, would pick from an inventory of ready-to-eat meal and meal components, along with sauces, snacks and desserts, each prepared in advance by food industry collaborators. Habit could then deliver personalization as a fulfillment task, much like an Amazon fulfillment center does. Customers would be able to conveniently and at a moment’s notice combine nutritionist-recommended components in countless ways to personalize meals for themselves and other family members.
To create such inventory of healthy, nutritious shelf-stable foods, it will require collaboration between companies such as Habit, food producers, and enabling process technologies. Personalized nutrition is the kind of issue that can move the industry to a revolution in the way we prepare, process and distribute healthy food. It can force old models to shift towards new cost-effective delivery structures that best serve the nutritional needs of consumers.