Why No One Knows What We Should Eat and How to Solve It

My personal journey led me to start a food technology company that aims to make eating both easier and smarter.

Young woman on a supermarket aisle seen from the back shopping

We can create behavior analysis maps based on diet, consumption, geography and environmental exposure tied to medical outcomes. Photo courtesy of Ingredient1.

Editor’s note: In anticipation of our upcoming Food Loves Tech event, we’ve launched a regular column to explore new and intriguing trends in the food and tech space. Read more about Food Loves Tech here. Taryn Fixel is a guest contributor and founder of Ingredient 1. You can read her original post here.

Every day, I get e-mails from moms asking about non-GMOs, gluten, sugar, peanuts. At face value, they are asking “What should I feed my family tonight?” but they also mean, “What’s the short or long term impact of this food on my child’s health?” Parents’ concern whether to feed their children organic or non-GMO reflects the underlying anxiety that our modern food system is increasing our risk of cancer and other diseases, ranging from autism to Alzheimer’s.

There is a prevalent food fear in our culture that has become a proxy to express our underlying anxiety about other issues: disease, cultural judgment, environmental decay and political breakdown.

And moms are not alone. A few years ago, President Clinton made headlines ditching McDonald’s for veganism to reverse his risk for heart disease after a quadruple bypass surgery. His outward physical transformation—after years on other trendy unsuccessful diets—made his food intake the subject of much interest. Is he a vegan? A pescatarian? All of his doctors agree that “whole predominately plant-based foods with healthy fats” are best, but vary in their specific dietary philosophies. Why? Because there are huge unanswered questions about the effects of different ingredients on the body.

For people with food allergies, a bite and their reaction time could be the difference between life and death. They live in fear of accidentally ingesting a harmful ingredient, that an uneducated server will give inaccurate information, or that food manufacturers aren’t providing enough information. So they avoid large food groups and stick to restaurants they think are probably safe.

Even in the “foodie” culture, where diet and health philosophy take a back seat to taste, there is a movement toward local, grassfed, wild-caught, free range—each pointing to concerns that unnatural practices are inherently bad for us and don’t taste as good. But understanding what these sustainability catchphrases really mean, and what effect they have on food quality, is confusing and debated.

Like former President Clinton, individuals often attempt to change the trajectory of a health problem, or achieve “normal health,” by casting a large net to solve a specific problem, sometimes avoiding whole food groups, restaurants and social interactions. Dedicated individuals are often met with positive results, but barriers to dietary success are high. There are also emotional consequences, which can be isolating. All this could be avoided with easier access to food information, quality and availability.

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I know this from personal experience. My own relationship with food became complicated at 26, after a brief hospitalization where I received the same diagnosis that roughly 12.5% of Americans get each year: IBS. The diagnosis means my gastrointestinal system is malfunctioning, but science doesn’t yet know the cause or have a good solution for treatment.

After testing various medications with nominal improvement, a friend recommended a little-known and scientifically unproven diet: “The Specific Carbohydrate Diet,” a complex regimen that removes grains, sugars, certain fruits and more. I tried it for 90 days and found measurable improvement. It worked until it didn’t. A doctor informed me my digestive system was no longer effectively functioning on its own, and suggested an elimination diet to determine to what degree food played a role and what the culprits were.

Over the next six years, I tried nearly every diet on the market. From SCD to Paleo to FODMAP, I was religious and obsessive. Was it eating an apple or something with gluten that changed my GI patterns this time? Had I accidentally consumed something “prohibited?” Was it stress? Travel? Food combinations? Was it really even necessary for me to be on such a severe dietary regimen? Figuring out what I could eat was hard; understanding how food affected me was impossible.

All this could be avoided with easier access to food information, quality and availability.

My personal journey and desire for a solution led me to start a food technology company, Ingredient1, which aims to make it easier to eat smarter. I have spoken to thousands of people—including dietitians, doctors, food manufacturers, chefs and farmers—about what they put into their mouths. An investigative and documentary journalist by trade, I was taught “total information dominance”—the collection of facts and perspectives.

What I have learned is alarming. Right now, we have a faulty food information system, which leads to a culture of distrust in food information. Educated consumers question the authenticity of the organic certification. They fear “locally produced” foods are actually shipped in from other locales, and they doubt the reliability of unverifiable farming practice claims. I was recently approached by a physician who is regularly asked to endorse natural and organic products but is reluctant to, given her distrust of the certification process and label claims.

Big Food. Big Health. Big Data. Dietary Ideologues. All of them are trying to solve these questions of what should we eat, how does it impact us, what do people want? But in order to do this we need to create systems that speak to each other—to effectively collect, aggregate, organize and analyze information.

This lack of scientific understanding about food generates confusion in an environment where people have a persistent low level and often unacknowledged concern about the food ecosystem.

Ingredient1 tracks over 30,000 ingredients in the grocery store. We know what foods our users must avoid and guide them toward safe foods they want to eat. But we can’t solve the problems of society’s food fear alone.

We need to create systems that speak to each other—to effectively collect, aggregate, organize and analyze information.

By creating a system of transparency, and organizing the information in a meaningful way, we will remove the chaos around food, and lift this cultural fear. This will require the united effort of consumers, scientists, technologists and food organizations. Food information is fact-based, but the facts are not always openly available. The burden is inappropriately placed on the consumer: It takes too much time, effort and knowledge to sort through the nutrition facts on the back of 35,000 foods in a single grocery store. If you care about the agricultural practices of a farm, that information isn’t readily available at the point of purchase. Broaden this thinking to the world of foods we eat and it’s overwhelming.

The information may be missing altogether, or obscured through marketing practices, further eroding confidence in the safety of our food systems. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, recently filed a class action lawsuit against General Mills, alleging the cereal manufacturer is misleading customers by calling Cheerios Protein a “high protein, healthful alternative to Cheerios” when the difference is nominal. And so, consumers still do not know exactly what they are eating, or how it’s impacting their health.

So how do we give people the information they need, when they need it? Provide the information up front, before the decision of what to eat has been made. Give it before the food is in their hand, not after.

A personalized lens for food discovery will initiate a cycle for consumers to tell us what they are eating, if technology supports them better along that path by creating delightful experiences and valuable returns. What we’re creating with Ingredient1 is the starting point to understand how food impacts human health.  

Preference is personal and evolving. Food choice is influenced by friends, magazines and blogs. Food purchase takes place in many venues. But none of this is integrated, making it a gamble that advice will translate into foods you can actually eat, find and enjoy.  

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Simultaneously, the current solution for health and diet optimization is a barrage of technological devices meant to help you track what you eat or how you feel, but these devices are disconnected from the eating experiences and provide limited guidance with food choice.

The solution is to create a synergistic environment for the expression of preferences, food information, food recommendation/purchase and social media. Connected to wearables, implantables, social media and augmented reality, we can learn more about how nutrition can be customized. It will lead us to a whole new way of conducting medical studies. We need to build the infrastructure that allows for the basic support of these devices.

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We can create behavior analysis maps based on diet, consumption, geography and environmental exposure tied to medical outcomes. The personal insights and potential optimization would be broadened to understand the way ingredients, food processing and agricultural practices will ultimately affect human health on bio-individual levels.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” said Hippocrates, the father of medicine. In 20 years, we will laugh at the idea that everyone thought they should eat the same foods. The study of pharmacogenomics, the role of genetics in drug response, has already proven that individuals absorb, metabolize and eliminate drugs differently. We are in the dark ages in our understanding of personalized nutrition and how the modern food ecosystem is impacting our bodies. With the level of transparency and connectivity provided by standardized comprehensive food data, we can leverage the latest technologies to find the answer, remove fears and empower people to find their culinary sweet spot.

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Taryn is the founder of Ingredient1.