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  • Gary Hawkins

The Convergence of Food and Health

Updated: Jul 13, 2019

Food represents an estimated $5 trillion a year industry in the United States. Nearly everywhere we look in the physical world—and increasingly online—food is available, including over 37,000 supermarkets, approximately 1 million restaurants, 150,000 convenience stores and more. You can grab a soda and snack as you explore Home Depot’s cavernous stores, deliberate office supplies in Staples or search for clothes at Nordstrom’s. Food has never been more available.

While food has become pervasive, healthcare in the United States has become the most expensive in the world. The U.S. healthcare industry is projected to be a $5 trillion a year industry by 2023, representing nearly 20% of the country’s GDP. The Milliman Research Report 2017 states that annual medical costs for a family of four are $26,944. Healthcare costs do nothing but increase, as anyone can attest.

Our health is inextricably tied to the food we eat as study after study has shown. Tracing the history of processed, carb-rich and sugar-laden foods in the U.S. we see a clear correlation with the growth of obesity and chronic disease. The connection between food and health was clear more than 2,000 years ago as Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, proclaimed “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

And though they touch each person daily, these two massive, pervasive and intertwined industries are largely disconnected at the individual consumer. I often use the example of the person who goes to the doctor and is diagnosed with diabetes, is given a prescription and is told to exercise and eat better. That same person returns home to find a mailer from her local supermarket with specials on soda, chips and ice cream. Sadly, that story reflects the reality of food marketing today.

And here’s the result of that disconnect: 60% of Americans have a chronic health condition; 42% of people have two or more chronic diseases. The Mayo Clinic reports that 70% of Americans take a prescription drug and more than half take two drugs. The average lifespan for a person living in America has declined for two years in a row. Healthcare costs outstrip inflation every year. Estimates of lost productivity in the U.S. due to chronic disease are in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The lost quality of life is immeasurable. Food and healthcare are broken and must be fixed.

I would argue that we as an industry bear a responsibility to provide information to our customers to help them make more informed purchasing decisions and guide them to products beneficial to their health. We are seeing a convergence of food and healthcare that is accelerating as recent events show.

Amazon is aggressively moving into the grocery business amid rampant speculation that the company will make a move into the pharmacy business.

CVS seeking to acquire Aetna in a massive merger, driven in large part as a response to Amazon’s moves.

Google is helping move healthcare data to the cloud, organizing and opening it up to advanced analytics and insights and API access. That API access conceivably makes it far easier to begin connecting healthcare data with food purchasing data.

Walmart is readying to acquire Humana, the massive managed care organization.

All these activities point to impending disruption in healthcare and, as called out in numerous articles about Amazon and Walmart’s moves, the ability to connect food purchasing with health data.

Supermarket retailers have long realized the importance of health and wellness programs. Many retailers have placed dietitians in their stores as a resource for customers to assist with label reading, meal planning and to answer questions. Many of the same retailers have also implemented shelf-signage programs such as the recently announced Guiding Stars program at Ahold; products throughout the store labeled with a star rating that provides guidance to customers as to the nutritional value offered.

While helpful, programs such as Guiding Stars are being superseded by efforts making use of the vast data attribution possible today from companies such as Label Insight, which uses AI and machine learning to deconstruct the brief nutritional summary found on packaged foods to identify hundreds and even thousands of specific, granular nutrients, minerals and vitamins, found in our food products. This massive increase in available data is powering more evolved programs such as that of Raley’s, which uses the extensive data attributes to identify products as helpful for specific health conditions, identifying items at the shelf and in their online shopping service.

But even this effort is being supplanted by a more personalized approach. ScriptSave, which offers programs and services in more than 60,000 pharmacies across the U.S., is leveraging knowledge of prescription data (via a HIPAA-compliant process) to accurately infer a health condition for the participating shopper; in addition, shoppers participating in Script Save’s WellRx program can self-identify health concerns and preferences.

Using the nutritional requirements related to specific health conditions, ScriptSave can filter the 40,000 products across the typical supermarket, identifying those products that are beneficial to the individual shopper, making those recommendations available via the WellRx app and through the participating retailers’ digital channels.

Discussions are currently under way at major retailers across the country as this kind of intelligent guidance connects the dots between the food industry and healthcare, ultimately leading to improved wellbeing for tens of millions of consumers.

ScriptSave’s personalized wellness initiative is a prime example of the convergence between the worlds of healthcare and food being made available by technology.

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