“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be they food,” said the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates in the 4th century B.C.

Seventeen centuries later in the US a growing number of food and drink companies are heeding his call, albeit in a more commercial way.

The concept of food as medicine is far from new.

Most first generation Asian and European immigrants to the United States practised the concept and taught their pre-baby boomer generation children the relationship between food, drink and health.

In China, food as medicine remains the norm for many people, particularly older folks. It’s a cultural way of life that happens when shopping and in the kitchen.

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Historically Chinese eaters have viewed food and medicine as two sides of the same coin – the Taoist dualities of yin and yang. Yin foods are believed to be cooling; yang foods to be warming. Within this duality are the five flavors of pungent, sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Good health is believed to be found through balancing these various components.

In the US, the post World War II processed packaged foods revolution largely set aside the concept of food as medicine, instead elevating mass-availability through processing, along with convenience and taste, to the forefront among eaters.

The rise of modern westernised medicine, particularly prescription drugs, also led to the near-elimination of the concept of food as medicine among subsequent generations, starting with boomers.

But food as medicine is back in a big way – and food and drink companies are taking notice. What’s old is new again, with a modern twist.

Food as medicine is separate sub-category of health and wellness

Food as medicine is part of the overall health and wellness trend in the US and is part-and-parcel of the functional foods category, although it’s instructive to distinguish it as a separate sub-category because it specifically emphasises the importance of food and nutrition to help prevent and treat medical maladies.

A growing number of scientists, physicians, medical institutions and health insurers in the US also are recognising food as medicine.

For example, doctors at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts are prescribing certain foods to patients with obesity and mental illness, along with suggesting to some they try the ketogenic diet.

In California, a group of medical and nutritional services providers have formed the California Food is Medicine Coalition. The programme includes launching the first medically-tailored meal scheme in the US.

And, in what offers the biggest opportunity for the growth of food as medicine, including for CPG brands, some insurance companies are experimenting with health centers and non-profits and offering reimbursement for prescriptions for specific foods to help treat chronic illnesses like Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

Innovation opportunity for ‘Big Food’

Nestlé, the world’s leading food and drink company, is leading the way in the food as medicine market, which research firms estimate to be worth about $15bn globally. The world’s largest food maker has set a $500m budget through 2021 to undertake research into medical foods.

The giant’s US arm has designated food as medicine as one of its key focus areas, along with plant-based foods and clean-label, Doug Monk, director of new business ventures, said during a food innovation forum at the Natural Products Expo West show in California in March.

Nestlé markets dozens of products under the food as medicine or functional foods umbrella. Most recently, it has entered a new food as medicine segment, “sleep-friendly” foods, in the US. It has launched two products, GoodBe and Goodnight, both designed to help the body relax and prepare for sleep. GoodBe is a refrigerated probiotic yogurt snack bar and Goodnight is a bedtime chocolate snack, which is laced with functional ingredients designed to help the mind and body relax for sleep. The Goodnight chocolate snack clusters are formulated with magnesium, L-theanine and casein protein, ingredients that have been found in some studies to help induce relaxation.

Mood food joins a growing list of food as medicine focus areas, including heart health, digestive health, immune system function and joint pain.

Another big food company emerging as a major player is Hormel Foods, which produces numerous branded products under the food as medicine rubric.

For example, its Vital Cuisine brand, a line of ready-to-eat meals, nutrition shakes and protein powders, targets energy and weight issues cancer patients face when going through treatments to fight the disease.

Hormel isn’t trying to cure cancer but rather help patients manage the serious side effects that go with its radiological and chemical treatment.

Mondelez International is the most recent big food company to show an interest in food as medicine. It recently made an investment through its SnackFutures global innovation and venture hub in New York-based startup Uplift Food, which bills itself as “good mood food.” The company’s focus is on foods that promote a healthy gut, which it says is a precursor to mood improvement. Mondelez likes the food as medicine category opportunity as it pertains to snack foods and their portability.

Opportunity for start-ups

The food as medicine category also is presenting itself as an opportunity for start-ups.

For example, a Texas-based start-up named Stay Cool has a beverage product formulated with kava, which it says is an ingredient that promotes calm and relaxation for the mind and body.

Then there’s Nightfood ice cream, which takes a subtle approach to being a sleep-aid, simply saying it’s a “sleep-friendly” food that also satisfies the craving for a snack that tastes good. The recentlylaunched ice cream brand is building a following online and in stores. Its founders are rolling the brand out nationally in the US this year.

There’s even a meal kit company, Sun Basket, that’s not only positioning itself as a food as medicine start-up but is staking out an overall leadership role in the movement, including advocating insurance companies reimburse physician prescriptions for food as medicine.

But the most interesting insurgent brand in the food as medicine space right now is Washington state-based Luvo, which recently added Harvard University trained physician and chef Robert Graham to help it evaluate the science behind food as medicine and create recipes for its frozen food brand that will advance the concept of reimbursement from insurance companies for food prescriptions.

Luvo offers frozen vegan meals for a variety of specific nutritional and medical needs and is moving deeper into food as medicine with a new line of 24 packaged meals it calls the reset diet for diabetes. The meals will be sold as a bundle to be eaten over six weeks to help people manage their blood sugar and gut health, according to the company.

Cannabis-infused (CBD and THC) food and drink products also in large part fall under the food as medicine category because their primary claims involve health improvement, such as pain and anxiety reduction, aid with weight gain and assistance with a myriad of other conditions. The rise in the cannabis consumables market could elevate the food as medicine concept and market to a much more prominent status in the coming years.

A lucrative opportunity?

Here are five suggestions for food and drink companies already in or looking to get into the food as medicine category.

The category needs transparency and honesty if it’s going to be trusted

Be transparent and parsimonious: Although there’s an increasing body of scientific research that demonstrates certain food ingredients offer medicinal value, CPG companies would be wise to be very transparent with and parsimonious in the medicinal attributes they give their products. The category needs transparency and honesty if it’s going to be trusted by consumers.

Affiliate: CPG companies in the food as medicine segment should affiliate themselves with research institutions, non-profit health organisations, providers and others attempting to advance the concept. This offers food companies an opportunity to be part of the larger picture of improving the health and nutrition of consumers, as well as building a brand and making a profit. Nestle, Hormel and Luvo are three food and drink companies doing this.

Partner with retailers: Grocery retailers remain the primary venue where consumers get the food they eat. Retailers also are increasingly becoming a key place where consumers obtain nutritional advice via a variety of new initiatives retail chains have launched over the last few years. For example, Kroger Co., the third-largest food retailer in the US, has launched Kroger Health, which has as its mission to improve the nutritional and overall health of its customers. Kroger Health president Colleen Lindholz has launched a food as medicine programme as part of that mission. Retailer programmes like this offer excellent partnering opportunities for CPG brands.

Invest in research: Food companies should also invest in independent research. This shouldn’t be the kind of research in which companies want a predetermined conclusion either. Instead it needs to be discovery research designed to better identify food ingredients with health attributes as well as to further document the health claims out there. It all gets back to transparency, which is a must with today’s modern consumer.

Invest in start-ups: The food as medicine category offers opportunity for Big Food corporate venture capital arms to invest in the start-ups out there – and more are coming – that are innovating in the segment. The food as medicine concept is growing culturally in the US and many innovators from all walks of life, including health care, are developing innovative products that if financed offer opportunity to food companies.

There’s growing consumer interest in food as medicine in the US. There’s also growing interest and action around it in the healthcare community. These ground-level realities make it a growing opportunity for CPG companies.

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates had another famous saying, which is given to new physicians: “But first do no harm.” Food and drink companies in the food as medicine space should consider adopting it as well. It’s a brave new world out there.

just-food columnist Victor Martino is a California-based strategic marketing and business development consultant, analyst, entrepreneur and writer, specialising in the food and grocery industry. He is available for consultation at: victormartino415@gmail.com and www.twitter.com/nsfoodsmemo.