The Habit test kit costs from $299 up to $449, if you spring for an additional “four weeks of digital guidance and tools to accelerate your adoption of new habits” (“BEST VALUE,” the website promises), and comes in sleek black packaging designed with unboxing pleasure in mind. A customer first fills out an online survey with information about her physique, activity level, blood pressure, etc. Next, she takes cheek swabs to send off for DNA testing. But what Grimmer and Josh Anthony, Habit’s chief science officer, consider to be the kit’s secret sauce is the “challenge beverage”: a 900-plus-calorie cocktail of carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids meant to simulate a large American breakfast. A fasting blood draw followed by two more at 30- and 120-minute intervals after gulping down the shake measure how efficiently your body processes each macronutrient.
Back at Habit HQ, the more than 70 biomarkers collected in the testing process are crunched through proprietary algorithms. Six to eight weeks later, results become available on the company’s website or its snazzy app. The customer finds herself characterized as one of seven “habit types”: archetypes that determine what percentage of her calories should come from fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.
That, in a nutshell, is the promise of Habit: to collect the right biological inputs and convert them into a perfectly tailored diet.
A “Protein Seeker,” for instance, could be advised to get 35 percent of her calories from protein, whereas the optimal diet for a “Plant Seeker” might include only 20 percent. Habit’s readout also includes personally tailored recommendations for things like calorie count, sodium intake, and recommended daily doses of a range of vitamins and minerals. A list of “hero foods” — items like salmon, Swiss chard, almonds, blueberries — highlights ingredients that Habit believes to be a particularly strong fit with your biology.
Across all habit types — and all the individual test results I saw — the dietary recommendations seem sensible and of a piece with conventional notions of nutritious eating. No one’s hero foods are pork rinds and vodka. Most people following their Habit recommendations would find themselves eating more vegetables, fiber, and lean protein, although a paleo adherent might be counseled that his body in fact has a hard time dealing with proteins, which means he’s better suited to a higher-carb diet.
I spoke to three Habit customers I found via Twitter — all self-professed data geeks who were as eager to dive into the raw results from the company’s testing as the ensuing dietary recommendations. All tell me they’re glad they did the kit, and though the results haven’t drastically changed the way they eat — or resulted in weight loss — the process has nudged them to be more vigilant about things like incorporating fiber or limiting caffeine. One customer notes that the results of her metabolic challenge, which suggested that her body was particularly good at handling sugars, seemed to validate her childhood attraction to sweet foods. The dominant complaint I hear is a shortage of transparency in terms of how the biomarkers inform the final results. “I think there’s an amazing education piece they could add that would connect the dots between the biomarkers and the diet,” Shane, a 41-year-old design director from Washington, DC, tells me. “Being able to share more of that information would be a huge benefit.”
And there’s the rub. Habit views the algorithms it uses to convert the raw data into recommendations as too valuable to share. Fair enough — it’s a business, after all — but it means the company’s methodology cannot be vetted by the broader scientific community.
More problematic than secret algorithms, however, is the absence of study data to indicate whether Habit’s approach is actually effective. The company stresses that its approach is evidence-based, meaning that it has been formulated with the input of scientific literature; however, that isn’t the same as validated, meaning that it has been tested through established scientific methods, like randomized controlled trials. Habit is currently in the beginning stages of a clinical trial, which may eventually add some scientific heft to the company’s promises. But for now, the company can only point to an eight-week pilot study of 20 subjects. And according to Frank Hu, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, the science on all this might not be ready for prime time. “There has been a lot of hype about the benefits of precision nutrition,” Hu tells me. “I think there’s a disconnect between the science and the commercial application. The principal is appealing, but the evidence is limited.”
Habit’s core product launched in January 2017, well under two years after the company came into being; a short runway for a highly technical, and novel, health product. But that “build the plane while flying it” approach makes sense when you consider its pedigree. Founder Neil Grimmer is an accomplished packaged-foods entrepreneur, but he doesn’t come from a science background; in fact, his academic training is in conceptual art and sculpture, as well as product design. The company’s chief science officer, Josh Anthony, who holds a PhD in cell and molecular physiology, is a food industry veteran who has spent much of his career working on infant formula. What’s more, all of Habit’s venture funding to date — a hefty $32 million — flows from the Campbell Soup Company, makers of tomato bisque and Goldfish crackers. That’s the rub, too: Habit isn’t a tech company. It’s a food company.