Nestlé is the 800-pound gorilla in the processed food business. With 335,000 employees, over 2,000 brands, 436 manufacturing facilities in 85 countries, Nestlé is the beast of the corporate food world. It is difficult to live even one day without eating something made by Nestle. But, Nestlé’s food empire, built on sugar, has propelled it to become the largest food company in the world and Europe’s most valuable corporation. And, don’t look now, but sugar is quietly becoming public health enemy number one. For Nestlé and other big food companies, sugar has been sweet with profits for decades. But, not anymore. Sugar is now auditioning to be the next diamond-level member of the consumables on the governments’ food vice list, joining tobacco and alcohol. With obesity rates on the rise worldwide, governments are zeroing in on sugar and the many foods that contain some form of sugar. First, Mexico imposed a tax on sugary drinks as a way to cut obesity. Then the U.K. followed suit. Saudi Arabia may also impose such a tax. Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering strengthening the rules for sugar labeling. In 2013 French scientists concluded that sugar and sweets “can not only substitute [for] addictive drugs, like cocaine, but can even be more rewarding and attractive.” The study found that sugar is “clearly not as behaviorally and psychologically toxic,” but cravings for it can be similarly intense.
Not surprisingly, it is with this ominous backdrop that Nestlé has set its future course—to invent and sell medicine. The idea would be to create medicines derived from food and delivered as a delicious snack food instead of as a pill. Some products might require a doctor’s prescription and others would be simply over-the-counter. Nestlé’s strategy is to redefine itself as a science-based “nutrition, health, and wellness company.” But, the irony in all of this is that Nestlé wants to do all of this while still keeping its sugary food businesses. Put simply, Nestlé would sell a problem and sell a remedy for that problem simultaneously.
Ed Baetge, 59, a decorated food and drug professional, now heads the Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences, based and the corporate headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland. He considers the Institute’s business to be “just like pharma,” Baetge says. “They’re screening new chemical entities, and we’re screening natural products, especially ones that come from food.” Baetge argues that food is cheap, plentiful, and familiar. It “really turns the pharmaceutical model on its head,” he says. “How do we activate the biggest drug that we take every day?”
So where will all of this lead? Will big food and big pharma get married? Are we witnessing a revolution in the distinction of food and medicine? Stay tuned, we may be in for the ride of our lives.
Innerlife STS for Organizations is a cloud mobile platform that enables health care organizations and health insurance companies to evaluate the effectiveness of mental health care providers and track the progress of their patients. Innerlife STS uses data intelligence and analytics to curate conceptualized narrative reports that explain the effectiveness of mental health care spending on individual health care providers.