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Alright, let’s get to it –
How Ozempic could change everything
There is so much press coverage and new research coming out about GLP-1 weight-loss drugs, I find it hard to keep up. In just the last few days, we’ve learned that Oprah is on one (and is “done with the shaming” about it!), that some people are planning to stop taking the drug during the holidays to enjoy food more, and that poison control centers have seen a spike in calls about overdosing on these meds. There was a deep dive in the New York Times looking at diseases (beyond obesity and diabetes) that may be treated with these drugs, from alcohol use disorder to polycystic ovary syndrome, and a feature in New York magazine about the intense debate over using GLP-1 agonists to treat childhood obesity.
It feels like everyone is trying to make sense of this major medical development and what it really means. I recently wrote about how this new class of drugs has also spooked some on Wall Street, as analysts try to figure out what the ramifications might be for food companies as individuals on average cut 20-30 percent of their calorie consumption on the meds. Is the impact overhyped, or have we not even realized yet how much this innovation could change things?
As I try to navigate this new GLP-1 world we are living in, I was eager to read the latest Consumer Trends report from The New Consumer, a publication focused on how we are changing the ways we spend our time and money, because it specifically delved into these medications and their effect on consumer behavior. (P.S. If you’re not familiar: The New Consumer, founded by Dan Frommer, a longtime tech journalist and former editor-in-chief of Recode, is sort of like a guide to understanding disruption, whether it’s driven by economics or technology. The publication covers the changing food landscape quite a bit. I highly recommend it.)
I asked Frommer if he’d discuss some of the findings from the latest report, since I know many of you are also curious about this topic. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity:
Helena: In the food world, industry leaders and public health advocates alike are eyeing this new class of drugs trying to figure out what it all means. There’s a back and forth about how much to make of it: Is the impact totally overhyped, or is this potentially a landscape shift? I’m curious: What did you think about all of this before you did this research?
Frommer: I’m very curious. There is a very real possibility that in the span of 10 or 20 years, many of the businesses and institutions and things about food and life that we’ve come to know as normal will change dramatically – or not. And that’s the beauty of these types of shifts, we don’t know. It’s fascinating. My background is covering the business of technology – mostly Big Tech, mostly Apple. One of the first big stories in my career was the launch of the iPhone. I had been writing about cell phones and smartphones, like the PalmPilot and Blackberry. When I saw the iPhone, I knew this would change the smartphone business. I did not know that this would change the taxi industry, how people eat, how people work, how people swipe to meet each other. It really was a complete shift that had so many secondary and tertiary effects that not even Steve Jobs in his wildest imagination could have come up with. That’s why I love writing about and exploring technology and science because frequently things happen that have a dramatic ability to shift every aspect of humanity or business or science or food or whatever it is that they touch.
I don’t think this is the iPhone, but it’s very interesting because it changes a part of the human experience, the human body, and the effects seem very profound. It looks like this actually works.
As part of your most recent trends report, you actually surveyed 388 individuals who say they’re taking GLP-1 medications. How did that come about, and what were some of the top things you learned?
This is part of a series of reports I put out called Consumer Trends. My partner in this work is an investment firm in New York called Coefficient Capital. We worked very closely on this together. We were all very curious. We worked with a professional survey firm called Toluna. [Editorial note: Coefficient Capital invests in food companies; see slide four here for some of its portfolio companies.]
We asked people, ‘Are you doing things more or less now than you did before you started using these drugs?’ We found physical health and mental health were dramatically better. Lifestyle activity: better. Exercise frequency: better. We even found a small increase in overall sexual activity. There were some other interesting behavioral changes. People say they’re more conscious of checking nutrition information than they were before, including checking calories and ingredient information.
One of the most profound things for me: 86 percent of our panel who said they were on GLP drugs said they feel like a different person – mostly in a good way. Some people said it was in a bad way, a lot of people said in a neutral way. But most people said they felt like a different person – 60 percent of men said they have changed their personal style, changed the way they dress, also more than half of women.
So you zoom out, could this affect cookie and snack sales? Totally. Could this change the way people approach fitness clubs, different sorts of vacations, spending money on clothes? There are so many different secondary and third-degree things here. In terms of shifts that I’ve seen, this feels like it has the possibility to be something real.
The reasons to be a little skeptical of that are that it is such an aggressive form factor [a weekly injection] and the cost. It’s very expensive. There are also side effects.
It’s fascinating to think about what could or couldn’t change. It’s early for sure, but it seems like an important storyline to follow.
Yes, I’ll note that right now it’s in that phase where every little bit of information gets sucked into this information vacuum and probably blown out of proportion. Some of the anti-hysteria analysis I’ve read is basically like, ‘There’s already millions of people on this [drug], and things haven’t really changed that much in the food industry.’ There’s really no official number of how many people are on these. Our estimate is it’s probably somewhere between 8 and 15 million people.
I found it interesting that in your broader consumer survey [of more than 3,500 people], Millennials and Gen Z seemed more optimistic about the impact of these drugs. I wonder if it’s in part because Gen X and Boomers very much remember Fen-Phen. What did you make of that?
We asked our panel, ‘What effect do you think GLP-1 drugs will have on society? Positive, negative, or kind of a neutral effect.’ It is interesting, it does seem like Millennials are the ones that are most interested. I think to a degree that makes sense. They are in their 30s, some of them are in their 40s. They have money, many of them have children, they are perhaps at a stage when they want to be in better shape or health than they are.
Here’s something else we found in our other research: For Gen Z, health and wellness is considered a high priority, but it’s less likely to be the top priority than it is for Millenials. Millennials are more likely than Gen Z to say they consider weight as an indicator of how healthy someone is. Given the choice, Gen Z would rather improve mental health by 25 percent than physical health by 25 percent. It’s the opposite for Millennials.
For more on all of this, check out the most recent Consumer Trends. It’s a slide deck that’s easy to flip through.
What I’m reading
Recalled applesauce pouches now linked to more than 200 lead poisoning cases in 33 states, CDC says (CBS News). “Health authorities are now investigating at least 205 cases of lead poisonings across 33 different states linked to contaminated applesauce, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday. That’s up from 125 cases in the agency’s last weekly tally,” reports Alexander Tin. “The growing case count comes as the Food and Drug Administration continues its probe into the source of the tainted cinnamon blamed for the contamination. The FDA has faced ‘limited jurisdiction’ in Ecuador, where the FDA says it cannot take ‘direct action’ to investigate some of those suspected to be behind the poisonings… Federal officials have urged state health departments to seek out cases of the lead poisonings, which could fly under the radar if people who ate the lead-tainted applesauce do not get blood tests from their doctor for the toxic heavy metal.”
Will Ozempic change the food industry? Not yet, but give it time (NerdWallet). “Recent reports have depicted highly profitable snack and fast food companies quaking in their boots over the threats posed by appetite-suppressing drugs like Ozempic,” writes Anna Helhoski. “These pearl-clutching (or more aptly, Pringles-clutching) reports are likely premature. That’s largely because weight-loss drug usage isn’t yet widespread enough to make a difference to the food economy.”
Looking back at key SNAP developments in 2023 (Grocery Dive). “SNAP commanded a significant profile in the grocery industry as retailers grappled with reduced payouts and the USDA took steps to make it easier for people to access their benefits digitally,” reports Sam Silverstein. “The year started out with rough news for many SNAP participants as emergency benefits implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic ended, shaving $90 per month off the average SNAP allotment. The reduction in spending power stemming from the change has taken a bite out of the industry, hurting grocers financially even as they confront inflation and other headwinds.”
Food policy lessons from removing trans fats from our diet (Leading Voices in Food). This podcast hosted by Kelly Brownell, director of the World Food Policy Center at Duke University, dives into the history of banning trans fat – a landmark decision made by FDA in 2015. “The anatomy of this process can teach us a lot about harnessing scientific discovery for social and policy change.”
Is ultra-processed food really that bad? (Financial Times). This is a short explainer video about the state of the debate over ultra-processed foods globally: “Ultra-processed foods are cheap and convenient. But many health experts say they are simply bad for us, and, as the FTs Madeleine Speed reports, health warnings about UPFs could have unintended consequences. Governments are mulling over how to advocate for more balanced diets, but kicking the ultra-processed habit may take some time.”
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Food Fix is off next week for the holidays. We’ll see you in January!