Editor’s Note: Rob Leclerc is founding partner of AgFunder, the digitally-native agrifoodtech VC and investor in Brightseed, a Californian foodtech startup. All opinions expressed here are his own and not those of the wider AgFunder group, including its media arm AFN.
The 50th anniversary of the White House Conference in Food, Nutrition, and Health was very different from when it first started in 1969. The conference was established to end hunger and malnutrition in the US and resulted in the expansion of the Food Stamp program and school lunches across the country. Today, the country faces a very different set of challenges, including diet-related obesity, diabetes, and chronic disease epidemics. Much of this is related to food affordability and access across the population; simply, junk food is cheap, healthy food is not.
Strikingly the failings of the US food system have left 88% of the population metabolically unhealthy. That means they’re suffering from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or pre-diabetes. And frighteningly that means they’re all at a higher risk of complications from the Covid-19 virus compared to the 12% who are deemed metabolically healthy.
Brightseed, an AgFunder portfolio company, has spent the last few years building an artificial intelligence-powered discovery platform, which identifies novel nutrients in the plant kingdom and validates their impact on human health and wellness so they can be used to support the body’s natural defenses.
As Sofia Elizondo, Brightseed’s cofounder explains:
From the beginning, we knew Covid-19 impacted older people more than younger but now we’re seeing data that shows people with underlying chronic conditions related to metabolic health are also being badly affected. Early studies from China highlighted that type 2 diabetes and hypertension were most likely to progress to a serious case of the virus and that obesity was even more impactful than a pulmonary condition; the reason is that those conditions compromise the body’s ability to tackle infection. So while there’s still a lot we’re learning about Covid-19, there are a lot of studies emerging about the link between metabolic health and complications from Covid-19. This means that the extent of the risk we individually face from Covid-19 is very much in our control via what we eat.
You might think that’s not rocket science; we all know kale, spinach and the like are good for us; The Lancet published a study last year showing that people with diets low in plants, fruits, nuts and seeds were three times more likely to die prematurely than those whose diets were high in those things.
But what we don’t know is how the benefit of certain plants is impacted by the presence of certain compounds within it that can vary in availability depending on which variety of that plant you’re eating and when and how it was grown. Brightseed is collecting data on all of that and has already discovered at least one beneficial compound — or phytonutrient as they like to call it — that can benefit metabolic health, in a plant that many of us eat regularly.
“We know from nutrition studies that certain diets have certain health outcomes but what we don’t know is why,” says Elizondo. “We lack knowledge at the molecular level and what mechanism of action is biologically-triggered when we eat certain foods. We call it the dark matter of nutrition; as with dark matter in space, we know it exists but we don’t really know what it is.”
Through its AI platform, Brightseed brings to the table a molecular view of what’s inside the foods we eat that has an impact on the biological systems in our body at a level of resolution we’ve never seen before. “It would be almost impossible to do this physically; imagine breaking down a grape into all of its molecules and then doing that for all foods we eat,” says Elizondo.
Brightseed then controls the whole production process of the plant in question to ensure the presence of the nutrient down to how it’s harvested and processed. It’s now working with food companies on how to get its first ingredient into consumers’ hands but it will likely be both a whole food ingredient and an extract version.
A big question facing Brightseed is how to ensure the accessibility of its product for all Americans; a key reason so many are metabolically unhealthy is that they pretty much only have access to cheap, junk food; creating a food product that’s expensive and therefore only available to certain consumers will not shift the dial as much as it should.
“We believe that in the future the world of food and medicine will merge…”