hard to swallow

Dinner, Engineered Just for You

Companies want to sell you a hyperoptimized diet. All they need is your DNA.

Photo: Paul Linse/Getty Images
Photo: Paul Linse/Getty Images
Photo: Paul Linse/Getty Images

Imagine an app that combines the meal-kit deliveries of Blue Apron, the DNA breakdowns of 23andMe, and the food-replacement ambitions of Soylent. Oh, and there would be an Instagram-y photo element involved, as well. With that kind of power, a diner using the app could, in theory, spy a dish that she likes, and snap a picture of it. The service would then analyze the ingredients, and assemble a meal kit that’s delivered automatically. This service would also know that this diner wants to reduce sodium intake, and has iron deficiencies in her diet, so it could adjust the ingredients slightly to compensate.

It’s an approach to eating and dieting that is not yet here, but the mere idea raises a number of questions: Do people want hyperoptimized diets if they come at the cost of deliciousness? Don’t humans actually know what to eat? Could companies be trusted with such personal information? Would these products just be cutting-edge snake oil? These, and numerous other concerns, are being figured out more or less on the fly as a number of competitors race to become the leaders in high-tech nutrition.

Nestlé is already piloting a wellness service in Japan that looks a lot like the prototype version of this fantasy scenario. According to a report in Bloomberg, the company’s new “Wellness Ambassador Program” allows its 100,000 users to send pictures of their food to the service and receive lifestyle-change recommendations as well as “specially formulated supplements.” There are also “capsules that make nutrient-rich teas, smoothies and other products such as vitamin-fortified snacks.” A home kit, meanwhile, allows users to “provide samples for blood and DNA testing,” so Nestlé can know even more about each person’s health. The service costs up to $600 per year. (Nestlé is also investing strategically in nutriceuticals, foods that are marketed as wellness aids. This year, the company acquired Canadian supplement maker Atrium Innovations for $2.3 billion, and the kits that Nestlé sends Wellness Ambassador subscribers take the form of drinks “dispensed in capsules using a product similar to Nespresso.”)

Of course, the company responsible for Hot Pockets is hardly alone in its pursuit of a future that combines the food-in-a-pill fantasies of science fiction with the personal privacy concerns of Facebook. Habit, launched in 2016 with $32 million in funding from Campbell’s, offers personalized diet plans based on “over 70 biomarkers.” The company’s at-home kit “tests your metabolism, DNA and body metrics,” and its “core” nutrition program starts at $199. Canada’s Nutrigenomix, on the other hand, sends each of its clients personalized nutrient charts. A sample report for an imaginary user named “Caroline” that the start-up shared with Grub identified 17 specific risk factors, ranging from trouble absorbing certain vitamins to a genetic disorder that elevates her risk of heart attack if she drinks too much caffeine.

The basis for this thinking is the still-emerging field of Nutrigenomics, which examines the ways in which human genes interact with human food. Nutrigenomix founder and University of Toronto nutrition professor Ahmed El-Sohemy says humans screwed up when they began focusing on one-size-fits-all dietary guidelines. He claims that understanding genetic differences helps explain why truisms such as “a low-sodium diet is good” end up hurting outlier individuals, the one-in-a-million person whose blood pressure actually goes up. El-Sohemy says companies like his can prevent that from ever occurring in the first place.

Some experts, however, aren’t convinced that this approach will make much of a difference to individual diets. “Our genes play a role in almost everything we do,” explains Cecile Janssens, a professor of epidemiology at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health. “But the role of each gene is so small that you can’t automatically use it to predict how many vitamins a person should take.” Carrying a certain allele, she says, doesn’t mean you need something like an extra 500 micrograms of broccoli a day, and that the kinds of determinations these services promise require “knowing everything that person does.”

Another criticism is that the field of Nutrigenomics itself is too new to serve as an effective guide to dieting. Two recent studies — an analysis of research used by nutrigenetic tests, and a clinical trial examining genotype-based diets — found the tests “currently lacking” scientific evidence, and that there was “no significant difference” in participants’ weight loss when they followed these guidelines versus when they did not.

Regardless, the Nutrigenomics industry reportedly banked $4.3 billion in 2016, and it’s expected to hit $10 billion by 2023. Nestlé, meanwhile, estimates that the number of subscribers to its Wellness Ambassador program will more than double, to 250,000, by 2020. It’s clear that there is a market for this type of product, even if it means parting with sensitive information — another development that has some watchers worried.

Ingmar Weber, a Qatar Computing Research Institute research director who works on public health and online data, says he personally is “hesitant to trust such a company [like Nestlé] to only have consumer health in their mind,” pointing out that this type of biotechnology ultimately gives the company’s researchers a new data set to mine: “Even if you opt-out,” he says, “if your sibling shares DNA information with Nestlé then, conceptually, they could use that to send you targeted offers.”

New start-ups are aware of this concern though, and say they’re taking steps to prevent it. Habit CEO Neil Grimmer tells Grub Street that the firm doesn’t share customer biomarker data for commercial purposes, but admits that with customer consent, they “may in the future use and share customer data for research in the fields of nutrition and health optimization.” He adds that in July, the company joined the Future of Privacy Forum in developing a set of best practices for genetic data protection. Nutrigenomix’s DNA tests, currently available in 22 countries, are encrypted and only accessible by an anonymized bar code assigned to the client’s health-care provider, El-Sohemy explains.

For the time being, the technology is still too primitive to truly change the way people eat. A recently published academic paper makes object-recognition AI sound less like the dish-identifying wizardry described at the start of this story and more like the Not Hotdog app from Silicon Valley. But it will advance, and until that time comes, there are customers who give these companies reams of private data — dietary habits, health histories, even their literal blood and DNA. They may not intend for their saliva samples to be used on R&D for reducing sugar in chocolate bars — yet the odds of it funding that type of research are growing, especially now that conglomerates like Nestlé are involved, even if, ultimately, they won’t really help anyone eat much better than they already do.

Researchers Are Using DNA to Engineer Hyperoptimized Diets