What to avoid in the grocery store

Food intolerance testing could be the next big thing in supermarket health care

Milk, eggs, bread… blood test? Believe it or not, that could soon be on shopping lists. Growing concern about food intolerances is making consumers extra wary of what they eat.

Allaying their fears may only require a simple blood test that would tell them which foods their bodies abhor and which ones they should eat more often. Best of all, the test can happen right inside the supermarket.

Sounds too futuristic? Hardly.

A Toronto-based company, Gemoscan, already markets such a food-intolerance system to retailers. Gemoscan’s clients have included Loblaw Companies and the drugstore chain Rexall.

Gemoscan’s Hemocode program, currently sold at more than 200 Rexall locations across Canada, begins with a fingerstick that collects a few drops of blood. About 10 days later, the customer gets a personalized wellness plan to review with a pharmacist.

The program, which costs $450, tests 250 foods and provides customers with a chart of acceptable foods and those to which the customer has shown an intolerance.

It also provides information to manage food intolerances, tips on nutritional and dietary wellness, a personalized recipe book based on foods in the approved food chart and recommendations for vitamins and supplements.

Customers also receive followup consultations with a licensed naturopath. (There’s also a “lite” version of the program that tests 60 foods, for $129.)

Brian Kalish, Gemoscan’s CEO, says two trends bode well for his service: growing consumer interest in avoiding certain foods and the rise in “retail health care” as people turn to pharmacists, dietitians, naturopaths and personal trainers for health and wellness advice.

“Retailers are really intent on figuring out how to take advantage of consumers’ increasingly evolving desire for comprehensive lifestyle and wellness solutions, especially where they’re shopping,” says Kalish. “Our program is just one more piece of that equation.”

In the U.K., drugstore chain Boots offers food-intolerance tests. But Kalish says no company in Canada or the U.S., other than his, offers similar tests at store level.

Loblaw began testing Gemoscan’s food-intolerance system, under the name MenuWise, in August 2012. At its flagship store at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, Gemoscan staffed naturopaths in a small zone next to the pharmacy.

MenuWise sold for $199, testing 120 foods. In October 2012, Loblaw decided to test it at a non-urban, traditional location, and began a pilot at a store in Mississauga, Ont. Both pilots ran until February 2013.

Kalish says 95% of the people who buy Gemoscan’s programs have all or part of the cost reimbursed through extended health-care benefits.

Stores that carry the program also gain, he says. “They have a creative product that gives them some level of differentiation.”

Retailers also earn money from Gemoscan directly, which Kalish says is all profit, since his company handles things such as setup and signage. Stores can further benefit from the sale of recommended vitamins and supplements.

But not everyone believes food-intolerance testing in stores is a good idea. Kate Comeau, a spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada, says her group is particularly concerned about the reliability of testing for IgG antibodies.

“There is limited evidence to support the use of these tests and they tend to lead to many false positives.” That, says Comeau, could result in consumers eliminating nutritious foods unnecessarily and without proper dietary advice. “ could put them at risk for nutritional deficiencies.”

Kalish counters that his tests rely on markers beyond just IgGs. Gemoscan’s programs are similar to the consultative model many dietitians offer, he says. The customer’s medical history is factored into the evaluation. But Kalish admits that so far only a handful of retailers have bought into the programs.

Still, with food and health so tightly linked today, that could change.

“Rexall was very forward thinking when we started piloting with them ,” says Kalish. “They said, ‘This makes sense, there’s very little risk for us, it’s a unique proposition and we think we can make a go of it.’ ”

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