As a nation, we spend over $5 trillion a year to feed our bodies. That’s the value of food sold each year in the United States through retail and foodservice, including nearly 38,000 supermarkets, an estimated 150,000 convenience stores and over 1 million restaurants. The U.S. food industry is immense, touching every person in the nation every day.
We then spend trillions more each year taking care of ourselves. The U.S. healthcare industry is massive, projected to be over $5 trillion a year by 2025 and representing an estimated 20% of the country’s GDP.
So we have two titanic industries that touch each consumer—and yet, food and healthcare are largely disconnected. Imagine the person who goes to the doctor and receives a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, is given a prescription for Metformin, and is told to exercise and watch their diet. Returning home, the same person finds a mailer from their local supermarket with special prices on soft drinks, ice cream and potato chips. This concerning scenario and similar others play out every day for millions of Americans.
The result of this institutional schizophrenia: exploding healthcare costs and poor health conditions for millions of people. The Milliman Research Report states that annual medical costs for a family of four are an estimated $27,000 in 2017. The average life expectancy in the U.S. has dropped two years in a row, the first downturn in over two decades. The bottom line is that healthcare costs are no longer sustainable at the individual, business or government level. Something must give.
Technology is enabling a new paradigm in which healthcare and food are merged together to improve the human condition: personalized wellness. Personalized wellness bridges the chasm by leveraging nutrition science, big data, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and consumer technology to guide each person to foods and products beneficial to their individual health condition, and aligns food manufacturers, retailers, employers and managed care organizations to a singular focus—improving and maintaining the well being of the individual.
Personalized Healthcare Meets Mass Marketing
Personalization is a driving force in healthcare today, as genetics, genomics and biomarkers are used to tailor medications to the individual and guide healthcare decisions for the individual. Discovering the right treatment regimen for the individual leads to improved outcomes.
Healthcare personalization is already extending to food. The Isala Hospital in the Netherlands is testing 3D printing of food, customizing each patient’s meals to the unique nutritional requirements based upon specific health conditions and medications. In Germany, a group of retirement homes has adopted 3D printing technology that purees vegetables like carrots and broccoli into nutritional, easy-to-chew soft molds of their original shape. WASP, a 3D printing company based in Italy, is testing a printer that can produce gluten-free versions of popular foods.
And yet as healthcare becomes increasingly personalized to the individual, food marketing remains firmly ensconced in the world of mass marketing. One need look no further than the weekly ad flyers that continue to overwhelm mailboxes across the country. The handful of retailers that tout marketing personalization are focused simply on growing the shopper’s basket size; if you like potato chips the retailer is more than happy to sell you a larger bag next time you visit the store—and maybe a soda too.
Retailers are not oblivious to growing consumer interest in health and wellness. Some retailers have dietitians in the stores to assist shoppers with meal planning and label reading. Other retailers have programs to provide guidance at the shelf, signing products as "heart healthy," "diabetic-friendly" and so on. In addition to retailer efforts there are myriad apps available to help consumers with meal planning based upon user goals such as weight loss or managing diabetes.
But despite the food industry’s efforts, 60% of the nation’s population has at least one chronic illness, with 42% of people having more than one chronic condition. Traditional supermarket operators remain fixated on doing business much as they have for decades, putting products at the center of their business rather than customers, and relying on industry marketing funds tied to the sale of packaged processed foods for their profits. And as healthcare and food merge at the individual consumer, traditional retailers are at risk of being left behind.