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The modern world has a serious problem with sugar.

The average American consumes more than 129 pounds of the stuff each year, according to the USDA, more than double what we ate two generations ago. And, unlike in previous decades when most sweeteners came from cane and beet sugars, today the vast majority are derived from high-fructose corn syrup, which brings with it unique new health risks.

It’s in nearly everything that we eat, not just sweets. Nearly 75% of all packaged foods and beverages in the U.S. contain some form of sweetener, according to a recent study in The Lancet journal of diabetes and endocrinology, making it a more than $100 billion market. Every time we eat a doughnut, drink a diet soda or pour a jar of pasta sauce over our linguine, we’re increasing the sugar in our diet, adding up to almost three times the recommended daily amount on average.

Americans spend about $1.5 trillion a year on food, and yet our diets are carb and sugar heavy in ways that are not good for us. Too many people are overweight, unhealthy, and it’s costing our healthcare system billions.

Why? Carbs are cheap and sugar is addictive. Lab rats prefer it over cocaine. Put sugar in a food product and consumers are more likely to eat a bunch of it and buy more.

But sugar has more than a few problems. It has been linked to mood swings and depression, causes weight gain and increases the risk of obesity, it increases the risk of heart disease even if it does not make you gain weight and it can interfere with proper immune function. Cancer cells love to eat the stuff. It accelerates aging and causes tooth decay.

Sugar has been called a “major contributor” to several health problems that plague populations in America, Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere, including obesity, Type-2 diabetes, and heart disease. More than 84 million Americans — 1 in 3 U.S. adults — today can be classified as having “pre-diabetes,” where blood sugar levels are elevated above normal, while another 30 million Americans suffer from Type 2 diabetes. (And 25% of them don’t even know it.) More than 20,000 U.S. youth under the age of 20 had Type 2 diabetes in 2009, with more than 5,000 new cases in this group being diagnosed every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

High blood sugar associated with these conditions can cause a range of serious health problems, including heart disease, vision loss, amputation, kidney disease and more.

In a world where sugar is cheap, accessible and plentiful, diseases such as diabetes and obesity have exploded into full-blown epidemics, accounting for 10% of all health spending in the U.S. as of 2016.

As David Turner, global food and drink analyst at market research firm Mintel, said: “Sugar is the new tobacco.”

Innovating healthy alternatives

The race is on to create a true sugar substitute that tastes good, avoids the health pitfalls of other sweeteners, and can claim to be all-natural.

In 2016, consumer packaged goods companies reformulated 20% of their food products to reduce ingredients such as sugar and salt, and Nestlé, PepsiCo, and Mars have all announced plans to decrease the sugar content of their food products going forward. Coca-Cola is even offering a $1 million prize to whoever can find a new, zero-calorie sugar substitute for their sodas.

It’s not going to be easy, though. Scientists have been working for decades to solve this problem with little success. (For example, Stevia, the greatest recent success story in sweeteners that spawned a $4 billion industry, still doesn’t taste very good.)

But we can no longer ignore the connection between diet and poor health.

To impact public health at a large scale and reduce the cost of healthcare we need to make good nutrition more addictive than the alternatives. That much is clear.

And that’s exactly what iSelect is working on. From improvements in nutritional value, to better resource efficiency, to better cost controls, the food system is ripe for disruption. Gone are the days when big, industry-shaping innovations came out of corporate R&D departments. With the recent mega-mergers in food and agriculture, the market has changed to allow entrepreneurship to set the pace for food and agricultural innovation.

And that’s just the start.

Public health is an all-encompassing issue that includes everything from healthcare companies, to food scientists, to farmers and more. iSelect is investing in the entrepreneurs who are making these innovations happen, including:

Nix — Solving hydration

Nix is developing a wearable, single-use patch that monitors a person’s hydration level in real-time, without the need for a power-source or companion device/app. Using a proprietary hydrogel developed at Harvard University, Nix’s biosensor detects changes in an individual’s sweat as he or she dehydrates and rehydrates, including the level of electrolyte losses, indicating when to drink, what to drink, and how much to drink. Dehydration is particularly problematic among athletes, military personnel, laborers, and the elderly, causing a reduction in performance and an increase in hospitalization.  

Gila Therapeutics — Streamlining weight loss

Gila is developing a treatment for obesity using naturally occurring hormones that are known to induce satiety, leading to weight loss. Gila is developing formulations to be applied to the tongue prior to meals, which have successfully induced satiety in animal testing without causing the nausea-like symptoms associated with injectable and other formulations.

Cofactor Genomics — Enabling personalized medicine

Cofactor Genomics uses proprietary RNA sequencing technology and machine learning algorithms to diagnose disease. RNA serves as a real-time barometer of a person’s health, as opposed to DNA which remains little changed throughout a person’s life and whose analysis is estimated to diagnose less than 5% of diseases. Compared to current methods, Cofactor’s patent pending RNA isolation technology allows the Company to detect specific RNA molecules from low-quality tissue samples, making 100x more patient specimens available for analysis.

These are just four examples, but the fact remains that iSelect is dedicated to investing in the future of public health and supporting the innovators who are solving society’s big problems.

Learn more about the iSelect portfolio.