Editor’s Note: Jim Flatt, PhD is cofounder and CEO of Brightseed, a foodtech startup using computational intelligence to rapidly illuminate the expansive world of natural plant compounds. These bioactive compounds have the power to transform today’s food and beverage packaged products into proven sources of health. He cofounded the business with Lee Chae PhD and Sofia Elizondo. Below, with the help of colleagues Carol Berseth and Sadie Barr, he writes about the potential for food in the health space.
(*Disclosure: Brightseed is an AgFunder portfolio company*)
Most of us aspire to live long, vibrant and healthy lives. However, despite living in an age when we can read our own genetic blueprint, artificial intelligence devices are commonplace in our homes, and our explorations have taken us into interstellar space, our ability to live a healthful life is being profoundly challenged by a formidable foe: chronic illness.
Today, nearly two-thirds of adults and one-third of children in the US live with a chronic illness.1 Globally, chronic disease accounts for more than 70% of all deaths each year. If trends continue, children today could be the first generation to live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents.
One industry has the best chance at changing these trends, and surprisingly, it is not healthcare. Rather, the real power to endow people with fundamentally longer, healthier lives resides in the hands of the food industry.
The Food We Eat
How we live our lives—the lifestyle choices we face and the decisions we make—are the central determinant in our ability to live a healthy life. And there is no greater nor more frequent lifestyle decision we make than what we choose to eat and feed our loved ones every day.
Unfortunately, what is often available is far from ideal. Our modern food ecosystem has excelled at providing easy access to abundant low-cost calories but has not yet delivered the same for healthful, high-nutrient options. 2 And as the Western Diet spreads worldwide, the result is a wave of diet-related disease.
Diet-related conditions are complex issues with no single silver-bullet solutions, but the connection between food and health is unquestionable. The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation has determined that poor diet is a factor in one out of every five deaths worldwide. Although 80% of certain chronic conditions can be prevented by choosing healthier food options, the numbers indicate that people are having a hard time doing so. Since 1975, the global obesity rate has tripled. This trend is particularly alarming because obesity is an early indicator of subsequent chronic conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and fatty liver disease.
The impact of this wave of chronic disease is crushing as countries worldwide forego billions of dollars in national income as a result of premature deaths and disability. The cost of obesity alone is estimated to be $2 trillion a year, equivalent to the global impact of armed violence, war, and terrorism. In sum, chronic illnesses are projected to have a global impact of $47 trillion by the year 2030.
Additionally, treatment of chronic illnesses is putting intense strain on healthcare systems, where the share of dollars spent in the treatment of preventable chronic illnesses continues to rise. In the United States, 90% of healthcare dollars are spent on those adults with at least one chronic disease.3
A Natural Evolution
We can change this. The food industry transformed itself in the mid-20th century to improve production consistency and achieve widespread distribution. Now, the food industry must catalyze its next evolution, where companies confront the diet-driven chronic disease epidemic with food and beverage products that explicitly promote human health.
Surprisingly, the tools for this transformation reside in the very supply chains in which the food and agribusiness industries have already invested billions of dollars to develop. The solution lies in the inherent healthful properties found in the natural compounds produced by fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds, and other plant materials. However, without knowledge of their potential impact, these bioactive compounds are often discarded or compromised in final products.
The realization that common plants are a fundamental and explicit agent for health is not new. Older systems of healing, such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, rely heavily on the inherent properties of native plants – their remedies resembling teas and tonics more so than pills.
More recently, Western medicine and the modern pharmaceutical industry have rediscovered this wisdom. A simple example is aspirin, discovered as salicylic acid from willow bark and now the world’s most popular pill. Similarly, research into the healing properties of French lilac led to the discovery of Metformin, the first-line therapy for people with type 2 diabetes and now a potential anti-aging drug being studied for its ability to extend lifespan. Even in the fight against cancer, we have successfully harvested from nature. The most widely used breast cancer drug, Taxol, was discovered in the bark of the Pacific Yew tree. In fact, more than two-thirds of small-molecule medicines developed for human health are derived from a natural compound.4
Harvesting Nature’s Bioactives
The opportunities for the food industry are abundant. Despite the impact plant bioactive compounds are known to have on human health, they remain wildly under-explored as a vehicle for providing fundamental health benefits in the very food products we eat daily. With more than 10 million natural compounds estimated to exist in the world and less than 0.1% of these identified or explored thus far, the opportunities in front of us are startling.5
Until recently, natural bioactive compounds have remained elusive to modern science because the process needed to understand them was slow and expensive. However, we can now illuminate this landscape with the help of artificial intelligence and computing power applied to the large-scale biological datasets that modern scientific instrumentation is able to provide. The first step to incorporate natural plant bioactives into our modern diets is to illuminate the potential that nature has already provided.
Perhaps even more exciting is the notion that the vast majority of commonly consumed plants with established agro-economy and supply chains have yet to be mined for their bioactive health properties, representing an extraordinary opportunity to develop untapped value in raw materials that can be readily brought to market. These bioactive compounds have the power to transform today’s food and beverage packaged products into proven sources of health.
Food with a Purpose
Today, the global food industry faces both a challenge and an opportunity. In the face of difficult consumer and health shifts, it must find a way to return food to its traditional foundation as a trusted source of nourishment, replenishment, and comfort. The food industry has the opportunity to deliver products that not only deliver a desirable consumer experience but also provide scientifically-proven health benefits. In the future, we will all eat with a purpose, be it to support our metabolic health, sharpen our mental focus, or promote sustained energy. Plant bioactives will become ingredients as familiar, and as essential, as vitamins and minerals.
Upon successfully reconnecting people with the inherent goodness in the foods they eat, the food industry will have graced more lives than any single medicine in history. The time has come to reclaim the promise of food.
1. National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). (2016). Health, United States, 2015: With Special Feature on Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities. Hyattsville, MD.
2. Monteiro C.A. (2013). Ultra-processed products are becoming dominant in the global food system. Obesity Reviews 14 (Suppl. 2), 21–28
3. Buttorf C. et al. (2017). Multiple chronic conditions in the United States. RAND Corporation. Santa Monica, Calif. DOI: 10.7249.
4. B. M. Schmidt, D. M. Ribnicky, P. E. Lipsky, I. Raskin, Nat. Chem. Biol. 3, 360–366 (2007).
5. Schläpfer P, Zhang P, Wang C, Kim T, Banf M, Chae L, Dreher K, Chavali AK, Nilo-Poyanco R, Bernard T, Kahn D, Rhee SY. Genome-Wide Prediction of Metabolic Enzymes, Pathways, and Gene Clusters in Plants. Plant Physiol. 2017 Apr;173(4):2041-2059. doi: 10.1104/pp.16.01942.