What if preventing children’s allergies was as simple as taking a spoonful of sugar?
San Francisco-based Before Brands is taking a cue from the Mary Poppins guidebook with its new product SpoonfulOne Daily Food Mix-in, a daily dietary supplement powder made to train a child’s body to get accustomed to foods responsible for 90% of food allergies. With one spoon a day, babies as young as 4-6 months get an introduction to proteins found in peanuts, milk, soy, wheat, shellfish, cashews, sesame, and more. Parents simply sign up for a subscription of packets, which they can mix into liquids, pureed fruits and vegetables, or cereal.
“Proactive is better than reactive,” cofounder (and mom) Ashley Dombkowski, tells Fast Company of her mission to reduce allergies prior to development. “And our product was designed to be the most carefully selected, most inclusive set of proteins ever developed for this.”
Dombkowski, who previously served as chief business officer at 23andMe, feels strongly about the medical community’s commitment to preventable diseases. In 2015, she partnered with Stanford pediatrician and allergy expert Kari Nadeau to start Before Brands in hopes of finding a convenient solution for the nation’s allergy epidemic. Food Allergy & Research Education, a nonprofit dedicated to food allergies, estimates that nearly 6 million children under the age of 18 possess a food allergy; that’s one in 13 kids, and about two in every class.
And it’s not just the feared mighty peanut: Roughly 30% of children are allergic to multiple foods, reports the journal Pediatrics. Meanwhile, two thirds of American kids have no parent with food allergies.
Ashley Dombkowski, Ph.D. has been a driving force behind companies at the leading edge of health innovation, like 23andMe. Together with pediatric allergist Dr. Kari Nadeau, she co-founded the company behind SpoonfulOne. The two women are helping a new generation of children enjoy food freedom. Read our story at spoonfulone.com. Link in bio. ⠀⠀
“When I was a kid growing up, we didn’t really ever hear about food allergies,” says Dombkowski, pointing to the rapidly growing phenomenon that has in many ways stifled children’s nutrition. On the more recognizable end, children are armed with EpiPens, fearful of a potentially life-threatening episode. But on a daily level, there’s the social isolation of having to sit at a different lunch table, the disappointment of avoiding sleepovers, and the anxiety of consuming unfamiliar foods.
As such, the cofounders are on a mission “to help a new generation of children enjoy food freedom,” their website attests.
Research studies have shown that introducing children to foods during the first phases of life reduces the probability of allergies. The landmark Learning Early About Peanuts (LEAP) study, for example, found a five-to-one reduction in peanut allergies after five years of feeding as compared with avoidance. There’s also the Enquiring About Tolerance (EAT) study, in which the early introduction from three months of age of six allergenic foods (milk, peanut, sesame, fish, egg, and wheat) was associated with a two-thirds reduction by the age of three.
The most affordable SpoonfulOne subscription is 12 months, which amounts to $2.50 a day (or $912 a year). When I ask, however, how long parents can expect to make what many would consider a costly investment, Dombkowski admits, “We don’t know.” Studies recommend mixing in these foods for a few years, but as every child’s immune system differs–and as research is still being conducted–there is no finite set time to wean one off the product.
“Scientists don’t yet know how long food allergens should be included in the diet to support and educate the immune system,” states the company website. It then suggests rather vague protocol, advocating “long term” use.
Since SpoonfulOne is also composed of Vitamin D nutrients, Dombkowski argues “there’s no reason to stop” since, technically, its diverse protein makeup is beneficial to keeping one’s immune balanced, no matter the age. But as for taking it for its primary purpose, that’s somehow up to parents to decide.
But Is It The Best Way To Round Out A Child’s Diet
Marina Chaparro is a clinical dietitian and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. While she applauds Before Brands’ efforts, she is not entirely convinced it’s the best way to round out a child’s diet.
“It really misses the mark in terms of teaching kids how to start learning how to eat,” she explains. “With food solids, you’re exposing that child to not just the nutrients, but we’re also teaching children how to like that food, learning how to adjust to different textures, and how to have that bite of whole wheat bread.”
Instead, she would sooner recommend her clients invest in an array of various foods and educate themselves on how to properly introduce them into a baby’s diet. Supplements, she explains, strip foods of other resourceful nutrients, such as iron or protein.
“The early introduction of these high allergenic foods could help your child prevent the incidence of food allergies–that part’s correct,” she acknowledges, “but the method that they’re using doesn’t tell me it’s superior.” And with research still being conducted, she holds these “studies don’t really tell us that kids need these type of supplements.”
Consumers could simply forego SpoonfulOne and incorporate these solid foods into their children’s diet, but as Dombkowski explained, new parents find adhering to such a routine rather difficult.
“People can go to the grocery store and buy all these different foods, but it’s hard to do and keep up consistently,” she says. “It’s really about making it practical and convenient.”
SpoonfulOne, in that sense, makes it easy for a parent to feel they’re taking charge of their child’s future ability to go to town at a birthday party. They can rest at ease that a tested and patented formula developed by a pediatrician and fully compliant with all FDA regulations is tackling what some call an allergy “epidemic.” It, as Dombkowski explains, gives some sense of control back to parents.
“One of the most scaleable ways we can actually have a positive impact on public health would be to bring really great science and biology directly to consumers and empower them with the tools to use that science,” she says.
As for the cost, which inevitably closes off a greater sector of Americans, Dombkowski says she does intend for SpoonfulOne to be more accessible, yet at the same time, a high-quality product. (“We’re conducting safety studies and not cutting any of those corners,” she stresses.) In the coming years, the company intends to expand its products–foods, snacks, etc.–that might better appeal to parents on a budget. Before Brands also plans to launch an educational platform and partner with pediatricians and medical facilities.
(In March, the startup announced it had raised $35 million in private funding in a Series B financing round led by Gurnet Point Capital, bringing it to a total of $48 in funding since 2016.)
While the current SpoonfulOne product price point might intimidate some, the cofounder is quick to point out the expensive setbacks of living with a food allergy. According to the journal JAMA Pediatrics, the U.S. spends $25 billion a year, roughly $4,000 per child, just to manage food allergies. Items such as rice milk, EpiPens, and breathing medications are a heavy strain on family finances.
“Our current system is really a sick care system, not a health care system,” bemoans Dombkowski, who likens training the immune system to physical exercise: it’s scientifically proven to help you in the long run.
“We’re really talking about the beginning of the process, starting in these infants because it’s the best way to get ahead of this issue for a generation,” she holds. “But there’s also clearly value for eating diversity and keeping a hyper-diverse protein exposure in the diet for the long run.”
But beyond food allergies, the Silicon Valley veteran hopes this new venture demonstrates how a preventive business model can actually be developed. Dombkowski wants to inspire her tech community to look “before, not after” in helping the country combat preventable disease and conditions.
“It’s not just a narrow story of food,” she says. “It’s really a much bigger idea that as a society, we should be really valuing and then developing products and opportunities for eventually at a much larger scale…This is just the first step in a much bigger product platform that’s to come.”