Bioactive foods, also sometimes called functional foods, generate significant interest these days for their ability to improve health outcomes and prevent chronic disease.
The World Health Organization lists “unhealthy diets” as one of four main factors driving the rise in these noncommunicable or chronic diseases such as diabetes, stroke, and lung and heart disease. These health issues cost the US $3.7 trillion annually, or roughly 19.6% of the country’s gross domestic product; worldwide, that number jumps to an expected $47 trillion over the next 20 years.
At the same time, consumers are demanding more natural products with plant-based ingredients that have been responsibly and sustainably produced, and food companies are under pressure to find ways to meet this demand.
Bioactive foods are at the intersection of all these factors, says Victor Friedberg, founder of US-based investment platform FoodShot Global. FoodShot funds food and ag innovation through a blended capital strategy of equity, debt, and prize dollars. The first FoodShot launched in 2018 with a focus on soil health, followed by 2020’s installment on precision protein. The third FoodShot, now taking applications, is all about bioactive foods.
The case for bioactive foods
A FoodShot on bioactive foods has been years in the making, executive director Sara Eckhouse tells AFN. A number of factors influenced the platform’s decision to launch it now.
“There’s been a recognition and realignment around the importance of metabolic health in overall health and immune system health, and there’s been recognition that poor metabolic health is a really high-risk factor for Covid,” she says. “We also have seen over the years [how] the cost of diabetes, the cost of heart disease have been impacting the economy, our health care system, longevity, general human health, our military. We also felt like there was also a need to integrate the sense of food health with where the food actually comes from, because it’s not just about what we eat, it’s also about how it’s grown.”
Food systems account for more than a third of global greenhouse gas emissions right now, and the use of things like synthetic pesticides actually depreciates the nutritional profile of the foods we grow. Eckhouse says we’re becoming more susceptible to iron, zinc, and protein deficiencies thanks to the unsustainable way in which we grow food.
“These are very troubling trends,” she adds. “We thought it was really important to have some investment [and] innovation tying these things together.”
Friedberg says we’re also at a point when we have the toolsets, frameworks, and mindset to unlock “the dark matter of food,” — the micronutrients, phytonutrients and tens of thousands of other compounds in our food that could be impacting our health. Until relatively recently, most of these were completely unknown.
“I think we’re just truly beginning to understand food,” says Friedberg. “And because of that, this intersection of nutritional science, biology, data analytics, those disciplines as an industry and as an academic discipline are going to become more and more linked.”
Better access to bioactive foods
Access to better food remains a major issue in many parts of the world in both developed and developing countries. In alignment with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 2, which aims to achieve “zero hunger” by 2030, FoodShot is also seeking innovations that improve access to food security and healthier, nutrient-dense foods.
Eckhouse highlights what she calls “the dual burden of malnutrition” where food insecurity and obesity coexist.
“You have the rise of diabetes at the same time that you still have malnutrition and people not actually getting enough nutrients,” she says. “In countries across Africa and India, you have an increase in metabolic disease while people are still going hungry. And hunger is significantly increasing with all the supply chain challenges that we face.”
There’s a behavioral element worthy of addressing within this category too.
“There are behavioral technologies coming out that I think we’d be interested in from the bioactive food sides that would help, educate, and move people into good decision-making or food that works best for their day-to-day lives,” says Friedberg.
“We are thinking very systemically about food,” adds Eckhouse. “We do try to bring some nuance and a more rigorous perspective on some of these things and not necessarily look for those silver bullets, but instead really identify systemic solutions that can be transformative.”
Bioactive food innovations could support brain, immune system, cardiovascular, metabolic, and gut health, as well as sustainable production practices that protect the planet and enhance biodiversity.