Personalised nutrition programme Zoe has racked up countless column inches and, most recently, an M&S partnership. How is the app shaping food choices and will it go mainstream?
Hot on the heels of Sienna Miller, a new high-profile face hit M&S stores in January. But this was no fashion icon. This was Professor Tim Spector, scientific co-founder of the Zoe personalised nutrition programme. His image was plastered over the M&S aisles to promote what was billed as a ground-breaking new product: the Zoe x M&S Food Gut Shot.
The hype was on a par with any A-lister partnership. M&S held a press conference to talk about the “hard work and hundreds of tastings” that went into the shot, which contains over five billion live cultures from 14 strains of gut-friendly bacteria, plus prebiotic fibre and “polyphenol-rich plants”. M&S product development manager Claire Richardson described it as “a dream” to work with so much scientific expertise.
Is this the world’s greatest gut shot? Launching today @marksandspencer, a collab with world leading gut-heath science company ZOE. Developed by @timspector and the brilliant product development and food tech teams at M&S, it has FIVE BILLION bacteria (your gut will love it) pic.twitter.com/6yM0RJ1Vkn— sharrycramond (@sharrycramond) January 2, 2024
And it was certainly the dream moment to launch. As well as all the usual health resolutions that accompany the new year, the news coincided with a raft of column inches around the Zoe nutrition programme, fuelled by high-profile interviews with Spector, and his appearance on Netflix documentary You Are What You Eat. The programme also attracted £2m in investment from Dragons’ Den’s Steven Bartlett last March, and has signed up celeb ambassadors such as Davina McCall, who made a promotional video for Zoe in August.
So does Zoe have the potential to go mainstream? And if so, how will it change the way UK consumers eat?
The story so far
To date, Zoe has signed up 130,000 subscribers. That may seem a small number compared with the buzz around the programme – but Zoe says its subscriber base “continues to grow on a weekly basis”. And there is scope to reach a much wider audience.
“The potential to go mainstream is significant,” says registered nutritionist and wellbeing specialist Clemence Cleave. “People’s awareness of the importance of nutrition as a pillar for their health, combined with a lot of mixed messages in the media on what constitutes a healthy diet, plus the tech aspect of the tests – all of this makes Zoe very attractive.”
For her, Zoe “stands out in the market of precision nutrition”. That’s partly because, unlike many of its rivals, it doesn’t focus on genetic or DNA testing.
Instead, the system looks at factors including blood sugar control, blood fat control, gut microbiome health, diet quality, and family/health history. These are determined through a stool test, a continuous glucose monitor and a blood fat test.
Each subscriber receives a personalised nutrition report on the app, based on the findings. That personalisation has the potential to get more accurate, too. “As Zoe membership grows and therefore the data for research analysis grows, the new findings will ultimately allow Zoe to update their gut microbiome and food scores to further personalise recommendations to individual members in volume through their app,” points out the British Association For Nutrition And Lifestyle Medicine (BANT).
The association sees a clear market for Zoe. “Personalised nutrition puts the power back into the hands of the individual and can deliver positive results in as little as four to eight weeks, all of which increases interest and compliance,” it says.
There are barriers to more widespread adoption, though. The key one is cost. The testing kit and report come at a price tag of £299.99 – then there’s the monthly membership fee, which ranges from £24.99 to £59.99 depending on the length of commitment.
“It is still an expensive service, and a lot of people won’t be able to afford it,” points out Cleave. “Another potential barrier to wider uptake is, of course, the health impact it may have and how much people feel the advice they received helps them to live a healthier life, long term.”
Cleave says the “the applicability of these tests to the general population is debatable and highly debated”. For her, the tests offer a level of detail that few will need. And despite the personalised nuature of the results, the advice to most people will be somewhat “fairly generic, emphasising the consumption of more plant-based foods and fibre”.
Certainly, the programme follows some common principles that could apply to all users. Improving gut health is a core aim, for example. At the M&S press conference, Spector pointed to common deficiencies in this area. “We’ve lost about half the diversity of microbes in our gut compared to our ancestors,” he said. In press interviews, he cited this lack of diversity as a key reason behind the UK being “the sickest country in Europe”.
This is not just a health problem - we are the suckers funding the big food companies to make us the sickest people in Europe while we are told it’s all under control. Obesity and weight gain cost Britain £98bn a yearhttps://t.co/W2KSbymjjB— Tim Spector MD (Prof) (@timspector) December 4, 2023
Live bacteria – such as those found in the M&S x Zoe shot – are a crucial tool to improving gut health. But you don’t need a branded product to get that effect. If Zoe’s message gets through, it could be a boon for brands that have focused on gut health as a selling point.
Already, many such brands are on the up. Kefir brand Biotiful, for example, has grown its drinks sales by 21% to £35m [NIQ 52 w/e 9 September 2023]. Bio&Me says sales of its range have grown by over 200% in the past year. No doubt this has been fuelled by positive publicity from the likes of Zoe ambassador Davina McCall, who featured its granola in a video diary of her eating habits.
As such, Bio&Me co-founder and CEO Jon Walsh is feeling good about the attention Zoe is getting. “The Zoe app is definitely helping drive consumer interest and education in gut health, which is a brilliant thing. The more consumers know about good gut health, the better.”
Fermented foods are one way to improve gut health. Eating a variety of plants is another. Zoe recommends consuming 30 plants a week to boost the diversity of the gut microbiome.
The recommendation has obvious benefits for foods with a high fruit & veg content. Take Allplants, which produces plant-based, chef-made meals. “Zoe app’s emphasis on plant-based eating aligns with the evolving preferences we’re observing, which is to actively seek “veg as hero” options in lieu of the overly processed meat alternatives,” says Lucy Squires, marketing director of Allplants.
As she points out, this change is already occurring to some extent. For Squires, Zoe is simply part of a wider shift in eating habits that has occurred in the wake of programmes such as Panorama Ultra Processed Food: a recipe for ill health, which aired in June. Or the Game Changers, a documentary on plant-based eating, protein, and strength that aired on Netflix in 2018.
“Fantastic storytelling is making the health benefits of wholefood plant-based eating more accessible, inspiring and easily understood,” Squires says.
For her, this is all contributing to a reassessment of what it means to be healthy. And Zoe will be a part of that revolution. The message is this: more fermented foods, more plants and less processing.
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