We’re all aware that drinking too much soda and eating too many potato chips is bad for our health—but fewer of us know that not eating enough fruits and vegetables is even worse.
It’s actually several times worse, said Jim Flatt, co-founder and CEO of San Francisco biotechnology firm Brightseed, at a Feb. 7 Congressional briefing co-hosted by the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and the House Hunger Caucus.
Flatt noted that plants contain compounds known as bioactives, which they need to survive, but which are just as critical for sustaining human health. “It turns out that underconsuming whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains rich in these plant bioactives is three times more deadly than overconsuming things like salty snacks and sugary beverages,” Flatt said, referring to the most recent Global Burden of Disease study, a comprehensive assessment of risk factors for debilitating injuries and illnesses.
And yet the USDA National Nutrient Database, which provides nutrition information for a host of generic and branded foods, lists and regularly measures only about 150 plant compounds. That’s why at Brightseed, Flatt is looking to shine a light on many of these unknown bioactives—the so-called “dark matter” of nutrition. “To date, we’ve cataloged over 1.5 million compounds,” he said. These determinants are poised not only to satisfy strong consumer interest, but also to serve major unmet public health needs, Flatt said.
“In recent years, the private sector has really begun to recognize that good nutrition is not only good for people, it’s good for the bottom line.”
This theme was echoed throughout the briefing, titled “Food as Medicine: Spotlighting the Power and Innovation of the Private Sector to Improve Nutrition,” and sponsored by Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, co-chair of the House Hunger Caucus along with Representative Jackie Walorski of Indiana.
Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School and panel moderator, spoke about the potential of market-based solutions that harness the power of whole foods. “This isn’t just about a moral issue; this makes economic sense,” he said. “In recent years, the private sector has really begun to recognize that good nutrition is not only good for people, it’s good for the bottom line.”
This recognition can take different forms. Some companies, such as Brightseed, are centering their entire business on nutrition, while others are providing it as a benefit to employees. For example, Cummins Inc., a global engine technology manufacturer, presents staff with a wealth of opportunities to make balanced choices throughout the day, from generously portioned vegan options in cafeterias to on-site wellness coaches who integrate nutrition counseling into their treatment plans.