Exercise in a Bottle Is Next Food Frontier for Nestle

Tucked away near Lake Geneva, a handful of Nestle SA scientists are quietly working on realizing every couch potato’s dream: exercise that comes in a bottle.

The world’s biggest food company, known for KitKat candy bars and Nespresso capsules, says it has identified how an enzyme in charge of regulating metabolism can be stimulated by a compound called C13, a potential first step in developing a way to mimic the fat-burning effect of exercise. The findings were published in the science journal Chemistry & Biology in July.

While any slimming smoothies or snack bars are a long way off, eight scientists at the Nestle Institute of Health Sciences in Lausanne, Switzerland, are looking for natural substances that can act as triggers. Nestle’s commitment to this type of project illustrates how the company is working to address consumers’ disenchantment with packaged food by formulating products that can do more than sate hunger.

“The border between food and pharma will narrow in the coming years,” said Jean-Philippe Bertschy, an analyst at Bank Vontobel AG in Zurich. “Companies with a diversified, healthy food portfolio will emerge as the winners.”

The numbers already point that way. Consumers’ appetite for food perceived to bring a health benefit, such as gluten-free pasta and organic juice, is forecast to outpace growth in traditional packaged food through 2019 after doing so almost every year in the past decade, according to research firm Euromonitor International.

Try Cycling

On the ground floor of a box-like building located on the campus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, the Nestle scientists are sorting through natural substances such as fruit and plant extracts to see which ones could modulate the enzyme called AMPK, which acts as a metabolic master switch to facilitate the body’s use of sugar and fat.

The goal is to develop a nutritional product that mimics or enhances the effect of exercise for people with limited mobility due to old age, diabetes or obesity, Kei Sakamoto, the scientist who oversees research on diabetes and circadian rhythms at Nestle, said in a telephone interview. Testing on animals probably won’t start for several years, he said.

“The enzyme can help people who can’t tolerate or continue rigorous exercise,” Sakamoto said. “Instead of 20 minutes of jogging or 40 minutes of cycling, it may help boost metabolism with moderate exercise like brisk walking. They’d get similar effects with less strain.”

Crossing Borders

AMPK’s role is crucial “as energy is needed for all the key physiological processes in the body, from secreting a hormone to moving a muscle and even brain function,” Nestle said in a statement today disclosing its research on the enzyme. Nestle shares gained 0.3 percent to 71.80 Swiss francs at 1:46 p.m. in Zurich trading.

The push into science nutrition means Nestle is going after targets that pharmaceutical companies have pursued for years.

Rigel Pharmaceuticals Inc. of San Francisco started testing its own experimental AMPK activator on humans earlier this year, to see if it can help with one of the consequences of a chronic form of vascular disease. The German drugmaker Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH is working with the Indian biotech Connexios Life Sciences to develop AMPK activators for diabetes.

The list of those who have tried to target AMPK and had no success so far, directly or through collaborations, includes Merck & Co. of the U.S. and Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd. of India. Merck is still at it after more than a decade of research, according to spokeswoman Pamela Eisele. Dr. Reddy’s, reached via e-mail, says it has abandoned research on the enzyme.

Holy Grail

One older diabetes medicine does work by stimulating AMPK. The drug, called metformin, inhibits sugar output from the liver and helps some patients slim down. Nestle doesn’t plan to partner with a drugmaker for its own AMPK project, according to Sakamoto. The Vevey, Switzerland-based company’s research budget of 1.5 billion francs ($1.6 billion) last year almost rivaled that of the Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk A/S.

Naveed Sattar, a professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow, points out others have tried to develop fat-burning products before, to no avail.

“A successful attempt in producing metabolic-assisting foods that mimic exercise would be marvelous -- the holy grail,” Sattar said by telephone. “But there’s no such thing as a free lunch. So far no such product has ever passed clinical trials.”

Nestle’s dabbling in health extends far back. Founder Henri Nestle was a pharmacist by training. The company made Nestrovit vitamins as early as 1936 with the Swiss drugmaker now known as Roche Holding AG. Fifty years later it disbursed $2.5 billion to buy the medical-nutrition unit of Roche’s archrival Novartis AG. Current products include Boost shakes, which help diabetics manage their blood-sugar levels, and Optifast, formulated to assist medically-at-risk patients who need to lose weight swiftly.

The commitment wasn’t always sustained: A joint venture with Baxter International Inc. to sell medical foods was disbanded almost twenty years ago. But lately, the company points to health nutrition as the way of the future, especially as it and others in the industry struggle to find the next frontier of growth, faced with consumers who increasingly shun packaged branded goods in favor of healthier or generic options.

“There’s still a lot about nutrition we don’t know and haven’t explored,” Ewa Hudson, head of health and wellness at Euromonitor in London, said in a phone interview. “You can’t be 100 percent certain of the outcome. It’s expensive. If anyone is to explore it, it would be a company like Nestle.”

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