Issue No. 148: The Promise of Personalized Nutrition

Illustration: Courtney Powell

Imagine a world in the not-so-distant future… You wake up and scan your Apple Watch for data on your sleep quality, gut microbiome, and blood glucose levels.

A notification pops up: It’s breakfast time. 

At your doorstep, a bot has delivered a custom meal kit, engineered to meet your specific nutrient needs for the day. It’s fresh, nutritious, and ready in minutes.

Think this sounds unrealistic? Think again. Personalized nutrition may soon be heading for your plate.

The Future is Personalized

In the past decade, personalization has swept nearly every consumer-facing industry.

  • Spotify dominates music streaming with individualized music suggestions and custom marketing.
  • Netflix and Amazon built their empires on carefully tailored recommendation algorithms.
  • Shoe giants Nike and Vans have seen success offering customizable footwear.

Across the world, consumers have come to expect hyper-curated experiences and intimately crafted products.

While the food business has historically lagged behind, a growing number of companies now want to personalize what you eat.

No Size Fits All

What it is: Personalized nutrition extends beyond food. Based on a variety of factors, like a user’s genetic profile or microbiome, startups offer tailored nutrition advice or craft custom supplements to fit your unique needs.

Emerging nutrition tech includes devices like wearables and fitness trackers, services like at-home DNA tests and stool analysis kits, and even personalized meal delivery services.

A tough nut to crack. Nutrition science, however, has had it rough. A metaphorical grocery list of confounding variables, from epigenetics to age to lifestyle factors, make effects difficult to isolate:

  • Nearly 40% of peer-reviewed dietary research turns out to be wrong.
  • Nutrition science is significantly underfunded, with just $88M of annual federal budget (<7%) going towards nutritional research.

Diving deeper, researchers are finding that the premise of a one-size-fits-all diet may be fundamentally flawed.

In 2015, a landmark study on nutrition discovered that responses to foods are highly individual — different people can have completely different reactions to the same meal. Even the same food eaten by the same person can be either healthy or unhealthy depending on time of day or amount of sleep.

As scientists uncover the massive impact diet has on well-being, it’s no surprise that decades of generalized dietary advice, willpower-driven diets, and predatory weight loss companies have left our health in shambles.

Last year, obesity and hypertension cost the US a collective $200B. Meanwhile, a steady diet of processed foods and refined fats/sugars are driving a surge in life-threatening food allergies.

Digging In

Thanks to increased demand and better technology, nutrition science may be on the edge of a renaissance.

  • Since 2014, mentions of “personalized nutrition” in the news have risen sharply.
  • The pandemic boosted interest in nutrition tailored to support factors like immunity and mood, with 64% of consumers considering it a top priority.

Eager to jump in, startups are leveraging everything from DNA to stool samples to determine how our bodies respond to food.

  • Genomic: DNA test giant 23andMe, which offers personalized nutrition insights, went public via SPAC this past June. Analysts predict that the genomic data scene is just starting to heat up; the industry is projected to clear $7.4B this year.
  • Microbial: Microbiome testing, a hot nutrition topic as of late, has had a big year — Seed Health ($40M), DayTwo ($37M), and ZOE ($20M) all led lucrative funding rounds.
  • Metabolic: Continuous glucose monitors from companies like Levels, NutriSense, and January AI help provide real-time information on the body’s metabolic reactions.
  • Other: Elo Health uses blood tests to provide precise nutrition recommendations. At-home test kit Everlywell ($75M) helps users identify food sensitivities and allergies.

Meanwhile, made-for-you meals add yet another layer of convenience. Daily Harvest has enjoyed increased attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, while Trifecta just closed a $20M Series B.

Pandora for Food?

While nutrition startups have drawn interest from investors, the current market is relatively small. Experts project $64B in sales in the next few decades, but in 2019, the global market came in just short of $2.5B.

For now, there’s no telling whether improved tech will make a difference — scientists have been trying to crack nutrition for decades to no avail.

Further, critics of the movement believe that nutrition is more art than science and that precise nutrition is simply an unattainable goal. Brita Rosenheim, partner at Culterra Capital and Better Food Ventures, sees a disconnect:

“Normalized human behavior, especially when it comes to food, is simply not precise.”

That’s not to say personalized nutrition is a pipe dream.

Consulting firm BCG predicts that the companies most likely to succeed will be those who can construct a comprehensive ecosystem, marrying the different steps of the nutrition pipeline from data to diagnostics to delivery. And many companies are assembling the pieces:

2019: Viome acquired Habit. Kraft Heinz acquired Wellio. Mars Edge acquired foodspring.
2020: Bayer assumed majority ownership of Care/of.
2021: Unilever acquired Onnit. Nature’s Way acquired Baze/ Seed Health acquired Auggi. Elo Health partnered with 19Labs.

Nestlé’s shopping spree. Leading the charge, Nestlé has spent lavishly to build out capabilities across all stages of the nutrition value chain.

  • In 2017, Nestlé spent $2.3B for Atrium Innovations (owner of supplement makers Pure Encapsulations, Garden of Life, and Douglas Laboratories).
  • Last year, the company acquired personalized vitamin business Persona, medical nutrition startup ZENPEP, collagen maker Vital Proteins, and meal delivery startup Freshly.
  • This April, Nestlé moved to acquire multiple nutritional supplement brands from The Bountiful Company for $5.75B.

Playing the long game, Nestlé’s bets seem to be paying off. Its portfolio has seen 12.2% YoY growth, with sales topping $3.7B in 2020.

Takeaway: Personalized nutrition has huge potential, though the industry is relatively immature. Over the next few decades, nimble startups may no longer be frontrunners in this space, especially as legacy food giants reveal their appetites, leveraging their war chests and snapping up emerging innovators.

🎮 Gamified Rowing

Stationary bikes and treadmills kicked off the Peloton of ‘X’ trend, but the connected rowing wars are heating up. A step further, gaming-inspired content promises to elevate the ergometer.

On the Fitt Insider Podcast: Ergatta co-founder and CEO Tom Aulet joins us to discuss the company’s approach to game-based content, including the opportunity to go beyond instructor-led, boutique-style classes.

We also cover: competition in the gamified fitness space, the company’s partnership with WaterRower, and the potential for Ergatta to enter new categories in addition to rowing.

Listen to today’s episode here.

🩳 Peloton’s Private Label

Giving its obsessive fanbase more to love (and spend on), Peloton is launching its own private-label apparel.

What it is: Known simply as Peloton Apparel, the inaugural collection debuts fall 2021.

Work in progress. The connected fitness company first began selling clothing in 2014. But, according to Peloton’s vice president of apparel Jill Foley, the offering was limited:

“When we started, we would buy blanks and just slap logos on them. Then we got more sophisticated and would work with other brands to design for us. But it was still their label.”

Over the years, Peloton teamed up with brands like Nike, lululemon, Spiritual Gangster, and Outdoor Voices on apparel collabs. More recently, the company began stepping up its apparel game:

2019: reported $14.7M in apparel sales
2020: hired former SVP of Merch by Amazon
2021: partnered with adidas on instructor-designed apparel

The big picture: Launching private-label apparel is the logical next step.

In fact, in an interview for the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference earlier this year, Peloton CEO John Foley hinted at as much, mentioning apparel sales “growing faster than the rest of the business” and adding:

“I think we’re going to surprise people in apparel… we’re building the best quality apparel in the world.”

Punchline: While Peloton no longer breaks out apparel revenue, Foley said the company sold 600K units of branded apparel in a single quarter last year. Now, by bringing its clothing efforts in-house, Peloton hopes to scale another revenue stream while strengthening its position as a true lifestyle brand.

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✌️ Calling it Quits

After a year of uncertainty, heavier workloads, and no vacation, workers across America have had enough.

  • A record 4M people, or 2.7% of the American workforce, quit their job in April 2021 alone.
  • 44% of employees say they feel more fatigued at work than they did in 2020.
  • 95% of workers are thinking about quitting, citing burnout as the top reason.

Soul searching. Leading the charge are younger workers, who have higher appetites for risk and greater demands for flexibility. Putting down spreadsheets and picking up passion projects, they’re now resigning en masse. According to Christina Wallace, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School:

“We’ve all had a year to evaluate if the life we’re living is the one we want… for younger people who have been told to work hard, pay off your loans and someday you’ll get to enjoy your life, a lot of them are questioning that equation.”

Battling burnout. Now, business owners are scrambling to address the “Great American Labor Shortage,” with over half reporting “significant workplace issues” following soaring rates of burnout, stress, and depression.

As the pandemic rages on, employers must prioritize workforce well-being in order to entice and retain talent. Across all industries, new wellness initiatives are being rolled out.

  • LinkedInNikeBumble, and more have given their employees a week (or more) to log off and destress.
  • GoogleSAPCisco, and others have instituted company-wide mental health days.
  • Even the finance industry is joining in — Houlihan Lokey is sending bankers on fully expensed vacations, while Credit Suisse is awarding $20,000 “lifestyle” bonuses.

Meanwhile, others have substituted office perks with teletherapy subscriptions, childcare services, and even Peloton memberships. Over 43% of HR managers report added perks as a result of the pandemic.

Looking ahead: Many say these initiatives simply aren’t enough. Hustle culture remains deeply ingrained in our collective psyche and continues to wreak havoc on our health, physical and emotional. Though these changes are a step in the right direction, both employers and employees may need to reevaluate their paradigms of work-life balance to bring about meaningful, lasting change.

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📰 News & Notes

💰 Money Moves

  • Outdoor gear and apparel brand Cotopaxi received an undisclosed growth investment from Bain Capital Double Impact.
  • Tia, a women’s healthcare provider, raised $100M in Series B funding led by Lone Pine Capital.
    More from Fitt Insider: The Future of Fertility Tech
  • Flo, a digital women’s reproductive health platform, closed a $50M Series B round at an $800M valuation.
  • Numan, a digital men’s health startup, added $40M in Series B funding led by White Star Capital.
    More from Fitt Insider: What’s Next in Men’s Wellness 
  • invested in, a health-tech startup focused on the management and reversal of diabetes. Endiya Partners and Tanglin Venture Partners joined the $10M funding round.
    More from Fitt Insider: The Business of Glucose Monitoring
  • Rewire launched its neuro performance platform with pre-seed funding led by Under Armour, NBA All-Star Kyle Korver, and 25madison.
    More From Fitt Insider: 
    Connected Mindfulness
  • Fitness equipment manufacturer Dyaco invested in connected fitness company STUDIO.
    On the Pod: Jason Baptiste, CEO of STUDIO
  • Thorne HealthTech, a personalized wellness company, plans to raise up to $135M in an initial public offering.
  • Aktivate, a sports technology platform for K-12 schools, closed a $7M seed round led by Will Ventures.
  • Investment firms leAD Sports & Health Tech Partners and Tavistock Group launched a joint $30M fund investing into seed-stage sports & health tech companies.
  • Canadian beverage maker Cove Kombucha raised $4.5M in equity funding to expand into the US.
  • Deportare Technologies, an online academy and certification board for fitness trainers, landed an undisclosed investment from ASICS Ventures.
  • Food tech startup Formo raised $50M in funding to scale its animal-free fermented cheese production.
    More from Fitt Insider: Dairy Goes Plant-based

Today’s newsletter was brought to you by Anthony and Joe Vennare, Melody Song, and Ryan Deer.

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