Healthy People, Healthy Profits

Leaders in the private sector are investing in nutrition and turning good health outcomes into capital.

We’re all aware that drinking too much soda and eating too many potato chips is bad for our health—but fewer of us know that not eating enough fruits and vegetables is even worse.

It’s actually several times worse, said Jim Flatt, co-founder and CEO of San Francisco biotechnology firm Brightseed, at a Feb. 7 Congressional briefing co-hosted by the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and the House Hunger Caucus.

Flatt noted that plants contain compounds known as bioactives, which they need to survive, but which are just as critical for sustaining human health. “It turns out that underconsuming whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains rich in these plant bioactives is three times more deadly than overconsuming things like salty snacks and sugary beverages,” Flatt said, referring to the most recent Global Burden of Disease study, a comprehensive assessment of risk factors for debilitating injuries and illnesses.

And yet the USDA National Nutrient Database, which provides nutrition information for a host of generic and branded foods, lists and regularly measures only about 150 plant compounds. That’s why at Brightseed, Flatt is looking to shine a light on many of these unknown bioactives—the so-called “dark matter” of nutrition. “To date, we’ve cataloged over 1.5 million compounds,” he said. These determinants are poised not only to satisfy strong consumer interest, but also to serve major unmet public health needs, Flatt said.

This theme was echoed throughout the briefing, titled “Food as Medicine: Spotlighting the Power and Innovation of the Private Sector to Improve Nutrition,” and sponsored by Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, co-chair of the House Hunger Caucus along with Representative Jackie Walorski of Indiana.

Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School and panel moderator, spoke about the potential of market-based solutions that harness the power of whole foods. “This isn’t just about a moral issue; this makes economic sense,” he said. “In recent years, the private sector has really begun to recognize that good nutrition is not only good for people, it’s good for the bottom line.”

This recognition can take different forms. Some companies, such as Brightseed, are centering their entire business on nutrition, while others are providing it as a benefit to employees. For example, Cummins Inc., a global engine technology manufacturer, presents staff with a wealth of opportunities to make balanced choices throughout the day, from generously portioned vegan options in cafeterias to on-site wellness coaches who integrate nutrition counseling into their treatment plans.

Cummins Chief Medical Executive Director Bob Chestnut said this investment is less about making a direct profit, and more about ensuring the long-term health and well-being of employees. “Our experience has shown that many individuals know what foods are good for them and what they should eat,” Chestnut said. “Really, it’s about helping them try something out for the first time and get first-hand experience with the new food—expanding their palate so that they’re more comfortable bringing that food into their home.”

Perhaps no industry has a higher stake in the health of its constituents than life insurance. Brooks Tingle, president and CEO of John Hancock Insurance, detailed the company’s “shared value insurance” program, wherein customers who engage in lifestyle-enhancing activities receive rewards for their efforts and monetary incentives to continue. “If we can help our customers take steps that correlate with a longer, healthier life—physical activity, nutrition—we make no secret about the fact that our financial results improve.”

Similarly, healthcare company Kaiser Permanente—a consortium of for-profit and not-for-profit ventures—has an ongoing interest in promoting plant-based diets among its patients, especially those from low-income households. Kaiser is studying the impact of selected nutrition interventions, including medically tailored meals and prescription produce programs, to pinpoint which actions best serve particular populations and disease categories.

“One role that health care can play is to build the evidence and also the business case to understand the effect of food as medicine intervention,” said Pamela Schwartz, Executive Director of Community Health at Kaiser. “We’re trying to learn from our members and our patients about what works. We’re working together with food-insecure individuals to help to better understand the barriers to food and nutrition security, and co-create the solutions.”

Blogger Shenica Graham, who was diagnosed with diabetes before joining a Des Moines, Iowa-based prescription produce program, extolled the benefits of nutrition education and regular, low-cost access to fresh vegetables for her family—especially her son.

“He would rather eat a salad than potato chips,” Graham said proudly. “Him being excited about getting involved in the food process is helpful to me because it makes me think about what we’re eating as opposed to getting fast food from down the street. Most of the time, that’s going to be higher salt, higher carbs, higher sugar. Everything higher. But lower impact as far as your nutrition.”

That much is clear just from looking at the facts, according to McGovern. “Rates of chronic disease caused by poor nutrition are rising, and the more food insecure you are, the more likely you are to have chronic diseases like hypertension, coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes,” he said. “There’s no longer any doubt—food is medicine.”

And government should invest accordingly—particularly in Black-owned businesses, urged Ertharin Cousin, founder and CEO of Food Systems for the Future, a nonprofit organization seeking to advance market-driven innovations in food technology.

Black-owned businesses hold the key to addressing malnutrition within underserved communities, Cousin said—but historical redlining has led to a low rate of investment in these enterprises, whether government or venture capital. “In America today, there are no longer any Black-owned grocery store chains, while we witness closures by major grocery chains in poor Black communities across the country, like Chicago’s West Side Lawndale community,” she said. “These closures create increasing scarcity of affordable, nutritious food in urban areas.”

Greater investment in businesses led by people of color, many of which center on food, will empower populations at higher risk for chronic disease to improve and diversify their diets, Cousins said. “Consumers will do better when they know better and can afford to do better, and when they have the access to the nutritious food they need in the communities where they live,” she said.

In summary: “Food represents hope and opportunity,” she said. “Food is medicine and food is also health.”

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