Mandy Saven is director of consumer lifestyle at Stylus, a trend intelligence company that equips brands and agencies with the consumer insights.
Consumer anxiety over medical treatment costs is rising — millions of Americans are delaying getting medical help owing to the financial outlay involved, according to a recent survey by Gallup. Why is this relevant to you and your brand? American consumers are beginning to seek non-medical, affordable solutions – and food is emerging as one of the most potent tools to alleviate this pressure.
Although food cannot compensate for genetic disposition or poor lifestyle choices – such as lack of exercise, smoking or excessive alcohol, illnesses can be prevented, treated and cured through dietary choices.
And there’s big business to be had. The global healthcare industry forecast is expected to exceed $10 trillion globally by 2022, opening up a huge commercial opportunity for American food brands and retailers to provide a food-first approach when it comes to prevention of disease as well as recovery and healing. This isn’t just about providing a beneficial product, but about brands becoming trusted and validated mentors to consumers, helping to cut through misleading information and deliver simple and actionable guidance.
Food to amplify health
Healthcare is starting to better quantify the benefits of — and more formally integrate — health and wellness habits, from nutritious diets to regular exercise and meditation. As the relationship between food and medicine tightens, healthcare organizations, brands and consumers are using food to prevent and manage illness, as well as boost vitality.
And the research provides a compelling narrative. Findings from Tufts University suggest that prescriptions for healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and oils, could lower the risk of costly illnesses like cardiovascular disease for U.S.-based Medicare and Medicaid patients. Specifically, about three million conditions such as heart attacks and strokes could be prevented in this way, saving $100 billion in healthcare costs over a five year period.
The opportunity for brands here is to find ways to make this easily accessible on a day-to-day basis as well as provide solutions that can be easily integrated into existing lifestyles. The potential is obvious for product developers, but hospitality and foodservice brands could get involved too, tweaking their menus and reformulating to take a more health-first approach.
We’re already seeing some American food brands supporting unmet healthcare needs through agile product solutions. Hormel Foods’ Thick & Easy line of pureed dishes, which come in variants such as turkey tetrazzini, squash and pumpkin spiced latte, are suitable for dysphagia sufferers – a condition that makes it hard for people to swallow. This an example of an instance where a brand can not only fill in the gaps for healthcare providers when it comes to product but also bolster overall quality-of-life. This will make them an undeniable ally in consumers’ quests for optimization of vitality and health.
Next gen meal deliveries
In recent years, food brands and services have aligned themselves with busy consumer lifestyles, offering flexible food delivery and meal kit options. As pressures become medically inclined as well as time related, an opportunity is opening up for brands and retailers to step into this space to support and enable more personalized nutrition. This applies to a wide array of consumers, from postnatal moms and aging consumers to those living with illnesses like diabetes.
Key examples in this area include Boston meal kit company Epicured, which offers dietitian-approved, low-FODMAP, gluten-free food packs that revitalize gut health in individuals with gastrointestinal conditions. And in the frozen food category, Luvo has partnered with U.S. physician-turned-chef Robert Graham to create meal packages that could be available on prescription and reimbursed by health insurance providers. These include a six-week vegan package with foods that help control blood sugar and improve gut health.
If meal deliveries aren’t an option for your brand, some companies may still want to consider developing meal kits that could be sold in-store and marketed with appealing point of sale.
Eating for prevention
Alongside supporting broader health, food also has the ability to help achieve specific physiological and mental outcomes. The gut microbiome, home to 90% of serotonin receptors, and known for its connections to mental health, is a key area for food brands to understand and leverage, particularly when it comes to new product development and personalized options.
In Japan, Nestlé is piloting a personalized nutrition program called Wellness Ambassador. The program combines artificial intelligence, DNA testing and meal analysis to collect data on an individual’s diet and health. It then sends capsules for teas and snacks fortified with vitamins to meet wellness needs. Around 100,000 program participants were using the program in 2018, which costs $600 per year.
Food and healthcare's bright future
As consumers take a more curious and proactive approach to the management and prevention of illness through diet, food brands will need to start filling healthcare gaps by creating increasingly personalized products, services and systems. This can start from the bottom-up: schools are prime locations to promote long-lasting good health. It’s here where we still see a need to provide kids not only with nutrient-rich foods, but also equip them with knowledge and know-how so that they can develop sustainably good eating habits. Young advocates will become tomorrow’s empowered brand fans.