Over the warmer months, you may have seen some people sporting a large circular yellow sticker on the back of their arm. Perhaps you’ve spotted it while out and about, at the gym, or on social media. This signals that the wearer is part of ZOE, a nutrition programme that has gained huge popularity in the last couple of years.
Most recently, Carrie Johnson, the wife of former prime minister Boris Johnson, revealed that she has joined ZOE. Johnson shared a screenshot through her Instagram Stories on Wednesday 27 September, showing a welcome email from the company.
ZOE, which bills itself as a “personalised nutrition program from the world’s largest nutrition-science study”, was founded by Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London, data science leader Jonathan Wolf, and entrepreneur George Hadjigeorgiou in 2020.
Read more: Who is Carrie Johnson?
It is backed by Dragon’s Den star Steve Bartlett, whose investment vehicle Flight Fund invested £2.1 million earlier this year.
Demand for ZOE soared about a year ago, when it had a waiting list at least 220,000 people strong. One of its biggest and most famous advocates is Davina McCall, who partnered with ZOE to launch an advertising campaign in August to promote the programme.
What is ZOE?
ZOE is a programme that aims to provide people with personalised advice on what they should eat, according to results they get from three tests: a gut health test, blood sugar monitoring, and blood fat test.
Users take the tests at home. The gut health test involves collecting a stool sample, while the blood fat test is a finger-prick kit that collects a small blood sample. Both get sent to ZOE’s labs for analysis.
Meanwhile, if they opt into the blood sugar scientific study, users are also given a blood sugar sensor - that’s the yellow sticker often seen on the back of the arm - and asked to wear it continually to get real-time insights into their blood sugar levels.
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Once they get their "ZOE scores", users can use tools on the platform to build meal plans, find new recipes, track their progress and learn more about how they can combine, swap or add food to their diets. The platform claims that it does not promote restrictive dieting, and instead teaches users "how to add different foods to your meals to improve your body’s response".
Watch: Keys to improving your gut health
Before it focused on nutrition and gut health, the company was known for the Covid Symptom Study, created in 2020.
It clocked up 4 million users at its peak and became the world’s largest ongoing study into the virus. But in 2022, it shifted its focus towards immune health and the gut microbiome, as its researchers believe that "immune health lies at the core of almost all major diseases from Covid to cancer".
How much does ZOE cost?
When you join ZOE, you should prepare yourself to pay for two parts of the programme: the test kit and the membership.
The test kit contains the gut health test, blood sugar sensor and blood fat test. It also comes with standardised test meals (muffins), a gut health report and a personalised insights report. It costs £299.99.
In order to then receive your personalised nutrition plan and gain access to the app’s other features, such as advice from experts and coaches, you must sign up for a membership.
These range from £59.99 per month for a one-month plan, to £299.88 for a 12-month plan, which works out to £24.99 per month.
You cannot buy the tests without a membership.
Does ZOE work?
According to statistics provided by ZOE, members have seen a number of benefits since joining the programme.
In a survey of 450 members who followed the company’s advice for more than 12 weeks, the majority (85%) said they improved their gut health. These improvements included less constipation and bloating, reduced diarrhoea, improved mental clarity and improved mood.
The company’s survey also showed that 74% of respondents said ZOE is a more sustainable way of eating than dieting, while 70% said they have more energy since starting the programme.
Read more: Over half of dieters lose weight 'in secret' over fears of being judged or failing (Yahoo Life UK, 4-min read)
Perhaps one of the biggest draws of ZOE is the sheer amount of data users receive about their bodies, with some people receiving more than 100 pages of data. On social media, many people who post about getting their ZOE results said they were "geeking out", while others said it was "fascinating" to have such detailed results.
However, some have voiced their concerns food monitoring apps that may be similar to ZOE could put people at risk of developing certain disordered eating habits such as orthorexia, an eating disorder that causes sufferers to obsess about eating only foods they deem to be "healthy" and avoiding those they believe are "harmful".
Yahoo UK has contacted ZOE for comment.
While there is some anecdotal evidence that the programme is effective, particularly in helping with weight loss and general health, further research needs to be taken to determine just how much what goes in on our guts affects our health.