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Re-thinking nutrition: health and wellbeing

Discover the new challenges to global health and wellbeing, and the companies creating solutions.
June 2021

Health and Well-Being is one of the most universal of all concerns, relevant to anyone with a body, in any place, in any era of human history. The last year has been a stark reminder of this, the world ravaged by just the latest of history’s great pandemics and plagues. Companies addressing and solving issues in this space are having a positive impact, and operating within a sustainable part of the world economy.

But if concerns around Health and Well-Being are timeless, the particulars of the challenges do evolve over time, and some very 21st century ones would have shocked our ancestors. Take the issue of obesity. Throughout almost all of human history, people worked from dawn until dusk in agricultural professions in order to cultivate enough calories to see the next day, and societies lived within one bad harvest of catastrophic famine. Deep into the 19th century, some of today’s most prosperous societies saw wide-scale starvation, including Sweden, Japan and Scotland. But today, the WHO estimates most of the world’s population live in countries where obesity kills more people than hunger. It is difficult to overstate the historical oddity of this fact. Of the 173 countries in the world, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations calculates that in only two does the average daily calorific intake sit below 2,000 calories, the average necessary male/female daily intake. Nowhere in the world sat consistently above this 2000 calorie threshold until the 18th century – for tens of thousands of years, all of humanity lived under the constant spectre of hunger.

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“Abundance is a uniquely modern problem.”

The WHO estimates 39% of adults worldwide aged 18+ were overweight in 2016, and 13% were obese. That same year, over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese. In fact, world obesity has tripled since 1975. And out of the 20 fastest-rising countries with obesity, nearly half of them are in Africa – the world’s poorest continent. The continuing escape from famine and hunger is of course a great human triumph, but obesity is bringing major health challenges of its own, with at least 2.8 million deaths attributable to it each year. Cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, and even some cancers, can be partly attributed to eating too much, especially fats and sugars.

Seeking solutions

There are many potential solutions to these problems of obesity, but one of them resides with individual companies in the food and nutrition space, who can tailor their product offerings to reduce the fat, sugar and salt content of processed foods, whilst also ensuring that healthy and nutritious choices are available and affordable to all consumers.

Woman doing food test in laboratory Kerry Group, a global leader in ingredients and nutrition, works with consumer goods brands as a research & development partner, providing ingredients that have less fat, sugar and salt, and increased nutritional value. Tapping into the sort of lab sophistication that would normally be associated with a medical research company, Kerry can push the nutritional envelope, for example with its TasteSense Sweet Solution, a portfolio of products based on botanical extracts and proprietary in-house biotransformation that when applied to products brings about an average sugar and calorie reduction of 30%, whilst using 30% less water in the production process. Kerry can bring the same flavour to the palette without the same sugar hit, helping prevent obesity and other health issues.

International Flavours and Fragrances (IFF) is another company at the forefront of providing ingredient solutions for a huge range of clients, including those in the food and drinks space. IFF works to reduce sugar content in products, as well as ensuring that they are sustainably sourced and clean labelled. IFF’s team develops natural health and nutrition ingredients derived from plants and herbs that can be used in dietary supplements, as well as infant and elderly nutrition – for example combining olives, grapefruit and bitter orange in a Mediterranean-inspired product that supports cardiovascular health.

In an era where food scarcity has become a thing of the past for large swathes of the world, the quality rather than the quantity of food becomes more pivotal, and companies like IFF and Kerry Group are playing a vital part in feeding people in a healthy, sustainable manner, combatting our very modern challenges of obesity and related diseases.

What lies ahead for Health and Well-Being?

If nutrition is one vital aspect of Health and Well-Being, another, more futuristic area, exists in the study of DNA: the hereditary material in all living cells, and the very building blocks of life.

DNA helixIllumina iis the world leader in the study and sequencing of the genome, which is composed of DNA. Its work has helped researchers explore DNA, mapping out genetic variations, and allowing doctors and scientists to begin to unpick the genetic peculiarities associated with various diseases, conditions and drug responses. The potential applications of this are mind-boggling, sitting at the intersection of biology and technology, and suggesting answers to some of the most vital questions of all: what causes a cancer cell to mutate? Where does a disease originate from, and how can we track and trace it? And ultimately, how can medicine be personalised, so that treatments and preventions are tailored to our individual genetic make-up?

In addition to becoming more personalised, companies like Illumina are helping steer medicine towards being more about preventions than cures. Many diseases, including cancers, can be detected by observing alterations in our genes, and so genomics can pre-emptively detect a disposition or susceptibility to a certain disease in a person, allowing them to take evasive measures. Scientists have also been able to build databases of genetic biomarkers associated with rare diseases, allowing rapid diagnoses of patients, in contrasts to the long, drawn-out ‘diagnostic odysseys’ of the past.

For a long time, however, the sequencing of the genome was punishingly expensive, making the technology difficult to scale. Back in 2000, it cost $100 million to sequence a genome, requiring the marshalling of enormous resources. Illumina has been at the forefront of democraticising genetic sequencing, pushing down the cost with constant product iteration. In 2014, it announced a $1,000 genome – 1/100000th the cost of the process less than two decades earlier. Now, Illumina is talking about a $100 sequencing of the genome, vastly expanding the availability of this science and increasing the range of applications, from consumer genetic testing looking at genealogy, to medical uses in neurology, cardiovascular health and diabetes.

Final thoughts

Good Health and Well Being is as important today as ever, even as the specific challenges shift and evolve, and the tools we have to engender change become more potent. We try to allocate capital to companies, whether in the nutrition and ingredients space, or in the realm of genomics, who are providing sustainable, positive solutions to these challenges. These are businesses that are making the world a better, healthier place – and generating healthy financial returns in the process.

Risk warnings

The value of investments and any income derived from them can go down as well as up and investors may not get back the original amount invested.

The information, opinions, estimates or forecasts contained in this document were obtained from sources reasonably believed to be reliable and are subject to change at any time.

Views and opinions have been arrived at by BMO Global Asset Management and should not be considered to be a recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell any companies that may be mentioned.

Meet Harry Waight

Harry Waight

Meet Harry Waight

Harry joined BMO GAM in 2013, and works as a portfolio manager on the Global Equities team. He focuses on Japan, as well as global stocks contributing to Technological Innovation and Health and Well-Being. Outside of work he is interested in understanding history, as well as mastering Jiu-Jitsu – both of which are proving equally challenging.

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