Skip to content

The Brave New World of Food as Medicine



“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be they food,” said the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates in the 4th century B.C.
Seventeen centuries later in the US a growing number of food and drink companies are heeding his call, albeit in a more commercial way.

The concept of food as medicine is far from new.

Most first generation Asian and European immigrants to the United States practised the concept and taught their pre-baby boomer generation children the relationship between food, drink and health.

In China, food as medicine remains the norm for many people, particularly older folks. It’s a cultural way of life that happens when shopping and in the kitchen.

Historically Chinese eaters have viewed food and medicine as two sides of the same coin – the Taoist dualities of yin and yang. Yin foods are believed to be cooling; yang foods to be warming. Within this duality are the five flavors of pungent, sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Good health is believed to be found through balancing these various components.

In the US, the post World War II processed packaged foods revolution largely set aside the concept of food as medicine, instead elevating mass-availability through processing, along with convenience and taste, to the forefront among eaters.

The rise of modern westernised medicine, particularly prescription drugs, also led to the near-elimination of the concept of food as medicine among subsequent generations, starting with boomers.

But food as medicine is back in a big way – and food and drink companies are taking notice. What’s old is new again, with a modern twist.

Food as medicine is part of the overall health and wellness trend in the US and is part-and-parcel of the functional foods category, although it’s instructive to distinguish it as a separate sub-category because it specifically emphasises the importance of food and nutrition to help prevent and treat medical maladies.

A growing number of scientists, physicians, medical institutions and health insurers in the US also are recognising food as medicine.

For example, doctors at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts are prescribing certain foods to patients with obesity and mental illness, along with suggesting to some they try the ketogenic diet.

In California, a group of medical and nutritional services providers have formed the California Food is Medicine Coalition. The programme includes launching the first medically-tailored meal scheme in the US.

And, in what offers the biggest opportunity for the growth of food as medicine, including for CPG brands, some insurance companies are experimenting with health centers and non-profits and offering reimbursement for prescriptions for specific foods to help treat chronic illnesses like Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

Another big food company emerging as a major player is Hormel Foods, which produces numerous branded products under the food as medicine rubric.

For example, its Vital Cuisine brand, a line of ready-to-eat meals, nutrition shakes and protein powders, targets energy and weight issues cancer patients face when going through treatments to fight the disease.

Hormel isn’t trying to cure cancer but rather help patients manage the serious side effects that go with its radiological and chemical treatment.