All You Need for the Diet of the Future Is $299 and Your DNA
Three-year-old Habit is using genetic data to end the one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition.
Habit founder Neil Grimmer. CREDIT: Courtesy Habit
Neil Grimmer knows food.
In 2007, Grimmer founded children's food company Plum Organics, which became a major player in the baby food and kids' food categories. The company grew revenue from $4.5 million in 2009 to more than $80 million in 2012, earning a spot on the Inc. 500 list of America's fastest-growing private companies two years in a row. In 2013, Grimmer sold Plum to Campbell's for $249 million. Ironically, running a business that sold healthy food coincided with Grimmer's diet taking a turn for the worse.
"We were so focused on getting better food to kids that my own health went totally off the rails," Grimmer says. During the seven years he ran Plum, Grimmer gained 65 pounds. Constantly traveling to meet with retailers, manufacturers, and equipment suppliers, he ate airport and airplane food regularly and got relatively little exercise.
A former Ironman triathlete obsessed with nutrition, Grimmer was determined to turn things around. After meeting with Leroy Hood, one of the fathers of the Human Genome Project who designed and built the first DNA sequencer, Grimmer got his genome sequenced and worked with dietitians to develop a customized nutrition plan based on his genetic data. The recommendations included getting carbohydrates primarily from non-starchy vegetables and eliminating dairy products. Within six months, he had lost 25 pounds and his blood levels had returned to normal.
"I was able to reverse almost all of the health issues that I had," he says. "That inspired me to start Habit."
Habit is Grimmer's latest venture, a personalized nutrition startup he founded in Oakland, California, in 2015. With the company's $299 at-home nutrition test, sold exclusively through its website, you collect DNA using blood and cheek swab samples and provide body metrics including your height, weight, and waist size. Habit's dietitians then analyze the material to craft a custom nutrition plan specifying your ideal ratio of protein, carbs, and fats, as well as which types of food to eat regularly and which to avoid.
Every Habit customer is placed into one of seven dietary categories, called Habit Tribes, but a company survey of 5,000 customers identified 4,380 unique personalized plans. If you're one of the 15 million people who have taken a genetic test through 23andMe or AncestryDNA, you can skip Habit's at-home test and simply upload your DNA information for a $100 discount.
CREDIT: Courtesy Habit
Habit sold meal kits as an add-on to the nutrition plan before partnering with Amazon Fresh to allow customers to instantly purchase the ingredients that go into their custom-tailored recipes. "You can get all of those assembled in a virtual meal kit delivered to your door the next morning," Grimmer says. "We see a lot of our consumers using that functionality." One in four Habit customers also purchase a $149 add-on service called Habit Ally. That service includes a 20-minute phone conversation with a registered dietitian followed by five weeks of guidance from a health coach via text message.
Habit has raised $32 million from Campbell's, its only investor. "The food industry is being transformed by the merging of food, well-being, and technology," a Campbell's spokesperson said in a statement. "Campbell's investment in Habit was part of our broader efforts looking into new models of innovation and smart external development."
Grimmer declined to share revenue figures, saying only that the company is "seeing growth in sales all across the country." The company has competition in scientific wellness company Arivale, which launched a nutritionist-on-demand app called Food Therapy, and DNA-based health and wellness personalization company Vitagene, among others.
Habit and its competitors face a unique challenge, however, as Department of Health regulations in New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island prohibit certain direct-to-consumer diagnostic testing, preventing Habit from selling its test kit in those states. Companies like Habit also have yet to prove that personalization can serve the dietary needs of the broader population, according to Joshua Mark, an analyst at CB Insights.
"Personalized nutrition companies still need a larger body of evidence that they can deliver quality recommendations to the average consumer," Mark says. "Should the potential benefits of personalized nutrition materialize, companies will likely look to incorporate other technologies into their programs. Wearable data can be used to recommend ideal calorie and protein intake, while foods can be 3-D printed to consumers' dietary specifications." A 3-D food printer, for example, could automatically add the optimal amount of nutrients, protein, or sugar to a meal, as specified by an algorithm.
While it's still early days for personalized nutrition companies like Habit, Grimmer says the opportunity is massive. Research supports this view: Research firm Marketdata Enterprises valued the U.S weight loss industry at $66 billion in 2017, and management consultancy Oliver Wyman expects personalized health to be a $600 billion market by 2020.
"To this day, we still don't have an owner's manual to our bodies," Grimmer says. "Being able to truly look inside of yourself at a cellular level and see that if I do this, I could be in more harmony with my body--that changes everything." He adds that data-driven Millennials who are now reaching their 30s are likely to look for customized approaches to their health. "At the end of the day, they expect tailored solutions across all aspects of their life, and nutrition is still the one that's been one-size-fits-all."