10 emerging themes from Future Food-Tech 2024

By Scott Bowman

April 9, 2024 •

Food as Medicine for 2024 and beyond

The Clareo Food team had the pleasure of attending the 2024 Future Food-Tech conference in San Francisco recently. With insights and inspiration around every corner, we remain firmly convinced that the food as medicine movement is as relevant to our clients as ever. These ten emerging themes in food as medicine will shape the coming years and decades – is your business ready to respond? 

1. The food as medicine movement is driving a shift towards evidence-based dietary interventions for managing health conditions.

Technology will play a vital role in targeting dietary interventions, guiding individual choice and measuring outcomes, powered by increasingly granular nutrition data.  Digital health and behavioral change programs will increasingly adopt food programs as part of their offerings, creating new opportunities for cross-sector collaboration.  Personalized nutrition will indeed emerge over time, but the bigger opportunity will be around personalization of choice, powered by digital, rather than personalization in food product design and delivery.

2. The healthcare and food industries are converging, with significant public and private funding available to invest in nutrition-based health interventions. 

As the connection between nutrition insecurity and poor health outcomes becomes increasingly clear, both public policies and private initiatives are expanding the funding avenues available for nutrition interventions to improve public health. While government-funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid now cover food-based interventions under certain circumstances, healthcare institutions are collaborating with the food and retail sectors in order to equip patients with the tools to proactively manage their health. Notably, the partnership between Kaiser Permanente and Instacart has provided Medicaid recipients with certain chronic conditions a stipend for nutritious foods using Instacart’s Fresh Funds platform. Platforms like Instacart enabling the use of  SNAP and EBT benefits online have also expanded market access points.

3. GLP-1s have taken the world by storm, and will become a catalyst for growth in the food as medicine movement.  Food can and must win in an “Ozempic world.”   

Nearly 15% of all prescriptions written today are GLP-1s. Being on them and experiencing rapid weight loss leads to muscle loss, dehydration, micronutrient deficiencies, gut health and gastrointestinal problems. Protein is having a heyday but the opportunity goes well beyond this. The growth area to watch in the GLP-1 landscape is in novel/functional ingredients, specially formulated nutrient dense foods, fiber-rich foods, and programs tied to nutrition incentives that can keep consumers off the drug, optimize their health when they’re on them, and step them down from the drug. Companies like Supergut are lighting the way to a promising future. 

4. Any wide-scale change in health is going to require a synergistic approach, considering the many factors that determine a person’s diet. 

Laura Brown, Director of Nutrition for Kroger Health said it well: “If we were to say we only eat because of nourishment, we would be kidding ourselves.” Consumers make dietary choices based on culture, tradition, pleasure, and other factors beyond just nourishment. This means encouraging better choices will require making recommendations across these different factors—even if that means encouraging a product with some added sugar that provides other health benefits. Kroger Health has taken an approach of meeting consumers where they are and making “better-for-you” recommendations within different categories so consumers can be guided through healthier product options throughout the shopping experience.  

5. The trials and tribulations of the alternative protein market has provided a cautionary tale on the importance of meeting consumers where they are—providing a valuable opportunity for popular food brands.

The alternative protein market has not only struggled to meet cost parity for consumers, but also to provide an experience that will lead consumers to choose alternative protein over their habitual purchases. Consumers build trust in particular brands and products, and emerging innovations have the potential to be successful if launched in partnership with these popular brands consumers already trust.

6. AI will transform the way we envision, design and produce next-gen foods – enabling more equitable access to nutrition. 

Early usage of generative AI and large language models (LLMs) abound, and now AI is being applied to more complex challenges such as ingredient discovery (e.g. Brightseed), bioinformatics precision biology (e.g. Shiru) and strain discovery and fermentation (e.g. NotCo). Emerging horizons including product development and optimization – predicting consumer preferences and designing nutrient-dense, great tasting foods. The holy grail of AI for some is metabolic engineering: making components that address metabolic pathways at the cellular level.  The promise of AI is endless, but challenges abound—responsible use, data accuracy, accountability and ethical considerations. The pace of change is accelerating exponentially, driving the need to experiment to learn.  One innovator commented that the refrain often heard by developers is “that’s so three months ago”. 

7. New capabilities such as gene editing, molecular farming (Elo Life Systems) and precision fermentation offer pathways for innovation for a healthier and more sustainable food system. 

As these technologies mature, innovators will be able to produce rare and hard-to-access ingredients on a larger scale—such as mogrosides extracted from monkfruit grown in host crops to produce next-gen plant-based sweeteners. They will also enable the ability to develop crops that are resistant to diseases and environmental stresses—including the beloved Cavendish banana, which is faced with extinction from a pathogenic fungus. These and more will help us increase access to nutrient-rich foods and address health and sustainability challenges. Cross-sector engagement will be needed for success in this arena, as will consumer communication that focuses on the benefits being delivered over the technology used.

8. The microbiome remains a new frontier, but our approach needs to evolve to translate emerging science into disruptive new innovations. 

Traditional approaches have focused on introducing microbes through probiotics and hoping they perform desired functions in the microbiome. However, there’s a growing emphasis on how dietary components interact with the gut microbiome to drive health outcomes. This approach offers potential for more targeted and effective interventions. We also need to move beyond surface-level microbiome testing and characterization to a deeper understanding of the complex interactions between diet and the microbiome—dietary interventions and their impact on microbiome and health impact, and also the role of bacteria-derived metabolites the role(s) they play in various physiological processes. Bioactives found in nature offer tremendous possibility for the future, but more research is needed.  

9. Fiber is the unsung hero, and most consumers don’t get nearly enough of it. 

Most consumers over-consume protein, but a “fiber gap” remains – only a small percentage of Americans meet their daily fiber requirements, with a significant portion consuming less than half of the recommended amount. Strategies to bridge this gap include partnering with companies that have waste streams rich in fiber, such as those from food processing industries. By extracting fiber from these waste streams and incorporating them into products, it becomes possible to increase fiber intake without the need to grow additional fiber sources. Solving this equation is vital to improving public health. 

10. Outside-in thinking and creative cross-sector collaboration are essential for large established players to drive truly new innovations.

In a world of rapid, discontinuous change and an ever more vibrant startup ecosystem, speed is the new IP. Winners will be those that optimize their approach and organizations for lean/agile innovation and embrace the startup and venture ecosystem in new ways—bridging their creativity and capabilities with the expertise and operational scale of big firms. The KraftHeinzNotCo joint venture provides a compelling example of bringing the best of both to bear. And, with the mandate to innovate for health, cross-sector collaboration and partnering between food + wellness + healthcare will be essential – uniting the capabilities and expertise that each brings.  But that won’t happen naturally; it requires engaging and bringing in expertise outside an organization’s natural ‘orbit’ and fostering co-creation with them. For many, a new organizational muscle needs to be built, partnering and pivoting to enhance operational growth. We’ve seen food corporations like KraftHeinz work with both startups and academia to bring in multi-dimensional expertise. With changes accelerating in food policy, venture funding, and scientific discoveries, it is crucial for the food industry to leverage the range of capabilities from external partners. 

With a broad range of applications across the whole food value chain from ingredients, FoodTech, manufacturers, global brands, distributors and retailers, these insights represent a step-change in how the industry is thinking about food. Whether it’s the way we create it, market it or consume it, one thing is certain: food as medicine has gone from an item to center-of-plate priority for C-suite leaders. Are you ready?

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