Where Star Trek has gone before, humankind is fast catching up. Captain Kirk had a handheld communicator to keep in touch with his crew and ask questions of his ship’s computer. Today, iPhone owners have Siri. And just as the crew of the Enterprise were entertained in the 3D Holodeck, audiences at the recent Billboard Music Awards were wowed by a hologram of a moonwalking Michael Jackson. Now, the Replicator—the “miracle machine” that synthesized food and medicine for The Next Generation—is the inspiration for Nestlé’s Iron Man program to produce customized nutrients. “Out comes your food at the press of a button,” says Ed Baetge, director of the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences (NIHS) in Lausanne, Switzerland. “If we do this right, it can be the next microwave in your kitchen.”
Nestlé, which has logged billions of dollars with its pricey Nespresso coffee machines, aims to one day deliver much-needed vitamins and minerals to people with a similar device. Through Iron Man, NIHS is coming up with tools to analyze and measure levels of dozens of essential nutrients—and ultimately offer supplements tailored to an individual’s needs.
The year-old Iron Man program is part of the Swiss company’s efforts to treat disease with foods and beverages. At NIHS, more than 110 scientists—including 15 assigned to Iron Man—are working on projects from identifying the molecular biomarkers of obesity to finding links between vitamin deficiencies and illnesses such as diabetes and cancer. “Iron Man is an analysis of what’s missing in our diets, and a product, tailored to you, to help make up that difference,” Baetge says. “In the past, food was just food. We’re going in a new direction.”
Nestlé already makes products for maladies such as Alzheimer’s and disorders that affect how the body processes food. But Nestlé’s research into personalized nutrition could lead to “business propositions that today we cannot imagine,” says Luis Cantarell, who heads Nestlé’s $11 billion nutrition segment. He says the era of fully customized foods is at least a decade away.
NIHS scientists say virtually everyone could benefit from knowing more about their so-called nutrient profile, a unique signature like a fingerprint with information on deficiencies or excesses. But getting that data today is expensive—from $50 to more than $200 per nutrient measured, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota—so a complete profile would top $1,000. NIHS is working with Waters, a Milford (Mass.), maker of scientific equipment, on tests to create comprehensive profiles. Many people know “their cholesterol number, but in the future they’ll know their magnesium number, vitamin D number, and more,” says Bruce Ames, a senior scientist at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California.
Nestlé envisions feeding the data into a machine that will create tailored foods or supplements with the right levels of, say, zinc or vitamin K. The nutrients might be delivered as a powder in a capsule like Nespresso coffees, Baetge says.
Some scientists are skeptical. “I don’t believe personalized nutrition will go down to the level of the individual,” says Ian Macdonald, head of the School of Life Sciences at England’s University of Nottingham, who says the complexity and cost will be too great. Yet if the Iron Man research succeeds, Nestlé could benefit. Gallup says half of Americans regularly take vitamins or mineral supplements, a market valued at $25 billion in 2013, researcher Euromonitor estimates. Although the Annals of Internal Medicine last year cast doubt on supplements’ usefulness, usage could jump if consumers can focus on their personal nutritional shortcomings. Says scientist Ames: “Practically everybody is deficient in something.”