Iron Man: Nestle’s Answer to Nutrient Deficiencies

Although the global economy produces more than enough food to feed all humanity, there are still nearly a billion people who are not adequately nourished. Part of the problem, of course, is that many people don’t have access to food, or are too poor to buy it, but the issue runs much deeper than that.

The real problem is that many people don’t know how to feed themselves properly, and thus lack essential nutrients even if they eat enough calories. Even in wealthy, food-exporting countries like the United States, millions of people are deficient in vitamin D, magnesium, and a whole host of other essential nutrients. Even when people have money and access to food, then, there’s still no way to get them to eat right.

A recent proposal by Nestle may change all that:

The Proposal
Nestle, a Swiss-based food and beverage company, believes it can make proper nutrition easily available with a device it calls the “Iron Man.”
The Iron Man can run “nutrient profiles” on its owners, assessing all of their health factors, including nutrient deficiency, diabetes, and obesity. It will then make meals specifically tailored to their nutritional needs.

It is theorized that these profiles would be processed into nutrient-rich capsules similar to the capsules for the Nespresso line of coffee machines that Nestle already produces. One could then use the capsule to infuse your food or beverages with the exact blend of vitamins and minerals your body needs.

This is not Nestle’s first foray into the business of improving people’s nutrition. The company’s $11 billion nutrition segment makes supplements for a number of maladies, such as Alzheimer’s and genetic disorders. Unlike these supplements, however, the Iron Man will be personalized. Customers won’t need to keep track of their own health deficiencies or nutrition needs; they can simply turn the Iron Man on and it will give them what they need to eat. If all goes according to plan, Iron Men could eliminate nutrition-related health problems in five to ten years.

The Objections
New devices, however, rarely go according to plan, and many analysts are somewhat skeptical of Nestle’s claims. One such skeptic, Ian Macdonald of Nottingham University, claims that
no machine can be so accurate as to discern every individual’s nutritional needs. “I don’t believe personal nutrition will go down to the level of the individual,” he says. “It’s not going to work.”

Even if an accurate, personalized nutrient profile is possible, the demand would be so great, and the required technology so complicated, that the cost of each profile would be prohibitively high. Researchers estimated that it would cost $50 to measure each of the body’s essential nutrients, meaning that the total cost of a nutrient profile may be well over $1,000 per person.

Nestle is aware of these barriers, and is currently trying to resolve them. The company’s research arm, the Nestle Institute of Health Sciences, is working with the Waters Corporation to decipher individuals’ nutrient profiles as comprehensively and cheaply as possible. Even if the research is successful, creating an inexpensive tool to measure nutrient profiles, it will likely take many decades– far longer than the five to ten years Nestle predicted.

Holding Out Hope
Even if Nestle’s claims are too optimistic, accessible nutrient profiles are a promise too tempting to ignore. As long as there’s some chance that the project can succeed, it will continue to attract interest and investment.

According to health scientist Bill Ames, many of the world’s most serious health problems relate to nutrition. Cancer, for example, spreads much faster in a body that lacks essential nutrients. Other negative side effects of nutrient deficiency include depression, dementia, stunted growth, osteoporosis, muscle damage, nerve damages, and impairment of the reproductive system. One cannot live a healthy lifestyle without adequate nutrition.

Even if a full nutrient profile is not possible, Nestle’s research may make it easier for individuals to find out about specific nutrition problems. Ames envisions a world in which people know their “magnesium numbers” and “vitamin D numbers” just as they know their cholesterol numbers today. Widespread knowledge of even individual nutrient deficiencies would greatly improve public health.