Habit burst into the public consciousness in late 2016 with a $32 million investment from Campbell Soup. The Oakland-based company develops nutritional recommendations based on an individual’s biology, metabolism and personal goals and then delivers customized meals to users’ doorsteps.
Dr Anthony, who is also VP of Global Nutrition and Regulatory Affairs at Campbell, first met Habit’s CEO Neil Grimmer when Campbell purchased Grimmer’s Plum Organics in 2013. “We became fast friends,” said Dr Anthony. “We were discussing this intersection of food, diet, technology, health and wellness, and I thought personalized nutrition was a really unique opportunity.”
“I thought in 2015 that had we tried to launch two years earlier it would have been too early for a systems-based approach. Two years later and it would be too crowded. Today there are a lot of companies attacking this from a lot of different angles. The timing was right for us.”
Biology and behavior
Habit is not just about ‘DNA diets’ or nutrigenomics, which explores the interplay between genes and diet (how dietary components affect gene expression and how genetic differences between individuals influence how they respond to dietary components from caffeine to sodium).
“There are two big goals for us. Firstly, it’s about looking at biology in a more integrated way,” said Dr Anthony. “We analyze genetics, blood, and body measures. And the second big thing is on the behavior side – there is a lot of dietary advice out there but we had to make it easier to follow, and that’s where the counseling and meal plans come in.”
Habit’s $299 nutrition test kit includes a cheek swab for DNA, a finger-prick blood test kits to measure an array of things including cholesterol levels, insulin and c-peptide, triglycerides, and fasting blood glucose; plus how your body responds to the macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein) in a metabolic challenge meal replacement shake. The kit also asks for height, weight, and other measurements, and asks you to outline your personal goals and aspirations.
The Habit Challenge Shake
A key aspect in the Habit test is the shake challenge, which is very sensitive to see how the body responds to food. This is based on the PhenFlex test developed by researchers at TNO in the Netherlands (TNO principal scientist and NuGo founder Dr Ben van Ommen is a science partner). Dr van Ommen and his team recently published results of a study in Genes and Nutrition validating the test.
Habit’s mixed macronutrient challenge test is nutritionally similar to a real meal, and temporarily disturbs the body’s natural balance or homeostasis. The company’s aim is to test your phenotypic flexibility – or how quickly you rebound from being challenged by a combination of carbohydrates, lipids and protein.
Habit has also conducted internal studies to validate the challenge, and reported some of these at the recent Experimental Biology conference in Chicago (the abstract for the presentation was published in the FASEB Journal).
“These results support the view that challenge testing can be scaled for use in consumer wellness programs,” wrote the researchers in the abstract.
A second study on the overall consumer experience with the coaching will be published soon, while a third clinical study has just received IRB approval, said Dr Anthony.
Once the kit has been sent to a third-party lab for analysis, Habit’s algorithm analyzes the data and provides consumers with a personal nutritional blueprint, and get a phone call with a trained dietitian to go over the results and the strategy before embarking on any lifestyle changes.
The lifestyle changes must be sustainable, and this is where the meal plan comes in. “In terms of thinking about meals, from a compliance standpoint there is an enjoyment with food,” said Dr Anthony. “The ingredients work together. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for supplementation, and supplementation could be part of the equation, but when we think about personalized nutrition it’s about goals and lifestyles. Every time we eat, we can do something positive for our bodies and those small changes can have a very big impact over time.
Habit’s recommendation system is based on data from over 530 scientific references, said Dr Anthony, and over 11,000 hours have been dedicated to the design of the recommendation decision trees to ensure they are based on solid scientific evidence.
The model is currently focused on individuals, and one question raised by observers is about how that can be extended into a family setting. “At a family dinner we already personalize based on preferences, in the same way individuals can personalize their food to better meet their health and wellness goals and biological needs. said Dr Anthony. “We look at how people respond to macronutrients, Some people are, metabolically speaking, more flexible, some are less flexible. People who are less flexible may require more restrictions on their diet, but there are still many ways for families and friends to enjoy meals together and stick to their Habit plan.”
What about what we don’t know?
The field of systems biology is relatively new, and the vast quantities of data involved and how this all connects together is complex, so how does Habit cope with what we don’t know?
“It’s an exciting time for systems biology and personalized nutrition will continue to evolve. However, we have the foundation to help people eat healthier and be healthier based on their individual needs. We also have a means to make it personal, actionable and easy. By combining both biological and behavior science Habit will be able to create significant and sustainable changes in health and wellness” We will continue to conduct research to deliver new benefits and reach more people. Ultimately, I want every body to benefit from more personalized approaches to health”
For an extensive review, co-authored by Dr Anthony, of systems biology of personalized nutrition published in Nutrition Reviews, please click HERE.
To watch a recent segment on NBC’s Today about personalized nutrition that includes an interview with Habit’s Neil Grimmer, please click HERE.