Mighty Wild: Bringing the Acorn to Your Pantry

MW_Logo_289COver the years, I’ve been intrigued and excited by food startups that introduce consumers to a unique ingredient through a tried-and-true form factor. Great examples are Exo’s cricket flour bar and Kuli Kuli’s moringa bar. Last week, I sat down with a food entrepreneur embarking on a similar mission. Her chosen ingredient: the acorn. Aline Copp is the Co-Founder of Mighty Wild, the first company to bring acorn flour to the retail shelf, initially in the form of a cracker (with the potential for other products down the road). Mighty Wild is crowdfunding the first stage of their growth via a Kickstarter campaign that launches today – check it out and be among the first to sample these delicious crackers: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/817922812/mighty-wild-gluten-free-vegan-acorn-crackers

Aline first tasted acorns in her fifth grade classroom in Texas. After reading My Side of the Mountain (a classic children’s survivalist novel), her class cooked acorn pancakes. California natives can likely relate: making acorn meal while studying Native Americans is a universal California elementary school activity. (Acorns were a crucial source of calories for native Californians. The anthropologist Alfred Kroeber estimated that >75% of native Californians relied on acorns for food on a daily basis.) Later on, after graduating from an MBA program motivated to create a food business, Aline visited an exhibit on acorns in Yosemite and was inspired. The seed for Mighty Wild was planted.

Acorn flour, the main ingredient in Mighty Wild crackers

Acorn flour, the main ingredient in Mighty Wild crackers

Despite having the idea – to create artisan food products using acorns – Aline and her co-founder Mimi Brown still faced a great deal of work. Specifically, they had to transform their raw ingredient into workable acorn flour, create a recipe for a food product, and build a supply chain from scratch. They spent months perfecting the process of making flour, first removing bitterness from the taste, and then milling the product into a fine powder. The founders then took advantage of Aline’s experience from the California Culinary Academy to battle-test dozens of recipes. They finally settled on their favorite creation: the acorn cracker. Their crackers highlight the nutty relish of acorns via three flavors: original, spicy chipotle, and rosemary & caramelized onion (my favorite). Acorn flour is naturally gluten-free, which positions the crackers in a very high-growth category. I see them as a high-end alternative to the gluten-free staple Mary’s Gone Crackers…almost Mary’s meets Rustic Bakery flatbreads, perfect for the sophisticated cheese plate.


When tasked with securing a supply of acorns, Aline and Mimi had to start from scratch. Though wild acorns are abundant in the US and hold an illustrious place in our country’s history, there is no formal domestic supply chain. Acorns are currently eaten in other countries (as acorn jelly – dotorimuk – in South Korea, as liqueur in Spain) and are occasionally used domestically in high-end restaurants (chef Corey Lee of San Francisco restaurant Benu, just recently awarded three Michelin stars, featured a pasta dish centered around the oak tree and acorns – pasta made from acorn flour, jamón ibérico from pigs fattened on acorns, black truffles grown at the roots of oak trees). However there are currently no retail products in the US made with acorns. Aline and Mimi tracked down the current domestic sources for acorns and spent months formalizing their supply chain. This included defining their own guidelines for responsible foraging in order to minimize the impact on natural ecosystems. To ensure the continued health of domestic oak trees, Mighty Wild is collaborating with the Arbor Day Foundation to dedicate a share of their revenues to planting trees.

With product and supply chain in place, the next step for Mighty Wild is to secure a sales channel. They’re currently in conversations with buyers at a major natural foods chain and, interestingly, were encouraged by a buyer to launch a Kickstarter campaign to prove demand exists for their products. It’s amazing to see that within just five years Kickstarter has become an accepted means of validating consumer demand, even for a national chain. We can’t wait to see Mighty Wild on shelves everywhere!

Kickstarter link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/817922812/mighty-wild-gluten-free-vegan-acorn-crackers

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Love with Food and the Disruption of Focus Groups – Takeaways from the Mixing Bowl Food IT Conference (continued)

Note: This is the second post covering takeaways from The Mixing Bowl’s June 20th conference on Food IT: Soil to Fork. The first post focused on Pantry Labs and the potential for smart refrigerator technology.

cropped-logo2A particularly interesting afternoon session at the Food IT conference centered on the question, “How is IT being applied to the marketing and selling of food?” The panel addressed the full spectrum of steps required to bring a new food product to market: product conceptualization, formulation, customer testing, design, packaging, and scaling. Given the work I do for my day job (management consultant at Bain & Company), I have significant experience in the customer research step of the process and am therefore intrigued by opportunities to make the customer research step quicker (and cheaper) through the use of technology and shifting market dynamics.

The panel included:

Panel, from left to right: Cornyn, de Tourreil, Ong, Sah, and Brodeur

Panel, from left to right: Cornyn, de Tourreil, Ong, Sah, and Brodeur

The Focus Group: The Traditional Tool for Customer Research

Chris Cornyn kicked off the panel by describing the value DINE Marketing can bring to the table. His premise? Nine out of ten new food products fail. The majority of these products fail – despite being heavily researched and tested – because they “get the insight wrong.” That is, they gather data on customer needs, wants, and desires, but fail to understand the true driving forces behind those needs.[i] According to Chris, a brand needs to understand not just the most explicit functional consumer needs (i.e., the need for sustenance) but also the nutritional, emotional, social, and cultural needs that drive purchase decisions. But how can a company best do that?

Until recently, the primary method for understanding customer needs was focus groups. Focus groups are a form of research in which a company recruits target customers, places ~5-10 of them in a room together with a trained facilitator (usually with a one-way mirror allowing for observation), and gathers qualitative data on the customers’ perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs towards a specific brand or product. In my day job, I’ve structured, organized, and attended focus groups for multiple CPG/restaurant brands. My main takeaways? They’re expensive, time-consuming to execute, and static (it’s a one-time shot to get the data you need; if you want dynamic reactions which evolve over time, you need to set up a series of focus groups, and with few scale-driven cost savings).

As an example of the costliness of focus groups, I conducted one set of six groups across three US cities at a total cost of ~$45,000[ii] – not necessarily a significant cost for the big brands out there, but certainly a barrier to entry for smaller CPG start-ups. Based on my experience, I was particularly interested when Mark Brodeur from Nestle claimed that, “The days of focus groups are over. Now it’s about leveraging social platforms.” So, what options do brands have for gathering consumer research without costly focus groups?

Radian6 and Bottlenose – Social Listening Tools

Social listening tools, or social media monitoring tools, allow a company to observe what’s being said about them, their brand, and their products in the social media world. This was the option Brodeur seemed most excited about, however he acknowledged the limitations to this approach: there is a massive amount of data out there on social platforms (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) but the challenge lies in synthesizing the data into actionable insights. When pushed for examples of specific companies meeting this need, Brodeur was at a loss. He cited the incumbent leading solution Radian6 (acquired by Salesforce.com in March 2011) and an audience member chimed in to recommend the smaller start-up Bottlenose, which emphasizes its ability to execute real-time trend analytics. (For a detailed discussion on the pros, cons, and alternatives to Radian6, check out this quora topic.)

DINE Marketing – iPhone Video Ethnography

As another alternative to focus groups, Cornyn shared a lower-tech solution that still relies on the qualitative reactions of consumers without the high price tag (I’m assuming). DINE Marketing conducted a study on behalf of a powdered mashed potato brand using crowd-sourced iPhone videos. Participants were asked to answer a series of questions via video about their favorite powdered mashed potato product (e.g., What do you like/dislike about the packaging? How do you store the product?). These videos revealed a serious flaw in current packaging (hard to open, impossible to seal once opened) that allowed DINE to innovate and create something much better. The relative lower cost of this path depends on what a company like DINE charges to gather the data, but it certainly seems easier than executing focus groups (although you do lose the benefit of a group dynamic, which allows participants to build upon one another’s’ ideas).

Love With Food – Direct Consumer Feedback logo_red

For brands, an attractive alternative to hiring consultants and marketers to conduct research is to get in touch with the customer directly. That’s a challenging task given that many consumers don’t see the value in filling out surveys for brands (and those that do are likely not a representative cross-section of a brand’s customers). However, one food startup is making that connection much easier: Love With Food curates monthly boxes of natural and organic snacks and ships them, for $10 per box, directly to consumers around the country. Customers get to discover new and unique products each month, and also receive a handful of coupons and discounts for purchasing more of the featured snacks.

Sample Love With Food box (themed, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame")

Sample Love With Food box (themed, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”)

The value proposition on the brand side is perhaps even stronger: brands get to introduce their product to a sizeable group of new customers nationwide (Love With Food boasts customers across all 50 states) and, even better, receive valuable marketing data based on customer feedback and follow-on sales.  Customers are incentivized via a point system to log-in and review the specific products they received. Customers can then redeem points in the online store to buy more of the products from the boxes. The feedback and sales data are packaged for brands in a marketing report. Founder and CEO Aihui Ong elaborates on the value of customer data to brands, “Most brands are very interested on how attractive and easy-to-open their packaging is.” Brands also test new product concepts, explains Ong, “One brand in particular, Little Red Dot Kitchen (maker of Asian BBQ jerky), used the survey to find out what new flavors customers are open to trying. This company took the data collected and developed a new flavor offering with very little time and money spent on R&D.”

By building a relationship directly with the customer, Love With Food is creating a platform with massive potential. They’ve garnered a ton of press coverage and continue to grow rapidly. The company announced a seed funding round of $1.4M this June. Ong states that Love With Food will use the funds to, “expedite growth, expand the team, and launch new product offerings like a gluten-free option.”

Beyond making it easier for smaller food companies to gather customer research, Love With Food is focusing on another mission: alleviating hunger. For each box shipped or product purchased, Love With Food donates a meal to a food bank in the US. To date, they’ve donated over 250,000 meals. Good luck Love With Food!

In sum, there are multiple exciting options out there which provide alternatives to the traditional focus group model. Social media generates a nearly infinite amount of data, smart phones allow for quick and easy video interviews, and new platforms like Love With Food are offering companies an unprecedented opportunity to connect directly with potential customers. I’m not sure if I’d join Brodeur in saying that, “the days of the focus group are over,” but it certainly seems like we’re headed in that direction. I’ll have to tell my clients that the next time I’m commissioned to conduct focus groups…


[i] One excellent example of the failure to understand people’s needs comes from my time at the Stanford Design School (d.school), which employs an empathy-driven design process. We were told a story about women in the developing world who spent laborious hours every day using stones to crush nuts into a fine meal. Western visitors to the community brought in a machine that crushed the nuts for them in a fraction of the time. Once the machine was in use, the visitors discovered that the women were miserable. The time-intensive process for crushing nuts had provided those women with ample time to sit with each other so they could talk and bond. The “laborious” act was at the center of an entrenched social ritual. By bringing in the machine, the visitors had “missed the point” entirely.

[ii] For those who are curious, here’s a bit more detail on the economics of focus groups (rough estimates based on one set of focus groups I conducted, encompassing six groups across three US cities). The predominant costs are as follows:

  • Moderator: (~$10,000) A company typically hires a third-party trained facilitator with extensive experience leading groups (though larger CPG companies may have these people in-house). The moderator advises throughout the set-up of the groups (e.g., recruiting strategy and criteria, discussion guide) and is the point person shepherding customers through the desired topics.
  • Facility fees: (~$5,000 per facility) Across the country, there are hundreds of facilities designed to host focus groups (here’s one example). They charge a stiff fee for the use of one of their rooms, complete with one-way mirror and recording capabilities. Typically the fee includes the labor cost of participant recruitment (facilities often have their own database of locals they can tap based on specific needs), as well as a hefty overhead fee for junk food snacks and catering
  • Recruiting incentives: (~$175 per recruit) This covers the cost of incentives for potential focus group participants. In terms of number of recruits, we always over-recruit in case there are no-shows and to allow us to whittle down the group to the best possible fits based on assigned homework the recruits submit
  • Travel expenses: (~$3,000-4,000 per attendee) For team and moderator, billed at cost (hotels, meals, flights)
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Pantry Labs and the Promise of Smart Refrigerators – Takeaways from the Mixing Bowl Food IT Conference

On Friday, June 20th, the Mixing Bowl, in partnership with the FEED Collaborative, held a conference entitled, “Food IT: Soil to Fork.” The event featured an impressive collection of speakers and food and agriculture startups. I’ll be sharing my takeaways from the conference via a series of posts this summer.

Mixing bowl logo

Included in the day’s agenda were two fast pitch business plan competitions: one focused on food-related startups and the other on agriculture. The winner of the food competition was a hardware startup called Pantry. Pantry attracted attention throughout the conference thanks to the live demo of their sensor-driven smart vending machine, along with the delicious fresh-pressed juices they were giving out to bring their technology to life.

The details on Pantrypantry logo

What Pantry sells is a smart vending machine solution which enables the easy vending of refrigerated items. In sum: it’s a refrigerated kiosk which can be stocked with any sort of food (or even non-food) item, particularly exciting given it makes the sale of healthier fresher foods easier than it is today. A customer unlocks the fridge via his or her credit card, takes as many items as desired, and the fridge tallies the cost using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to monitor the items leaving the fridge.

Benefits cited by the Pantry website include:

  • The ability for a retailer or food service provider to sell food unattended, in any location, at any time of day
  • Shorter lines for consumers, particularly vs. attendant-staffed cafeteria stations
  • A streamlined, elegant, and user-friendly customer experience

Pantry Founder and CEO Art Tkachenko elaborates on the Pantry value proposition:

Pantry in a hospital cafeteria

Pantry in a hospital cafeteria

“For consumers, the experience is magical – they just swipe their credit card, pick up their item(s) off the shelf and they’re done with the transaction. For Pantry operators, we provide a level of analytics that they’ve never had access to before – especially for a vending machine. We tell them exactly what’s inside of every Pantry at any time and, moreover, we provide them with the ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ of every purchase. We want our customers to succeed so we’ve put a lot of effort into designing an actionable dashboard with this data.”

Overall, Pantry offers a great value proposition for retailers and food service providers. It could also promote innovation by lowering the barrier to entry for selling products directly to consumers, by providing food producers a distribution alternative to pricey brick & mortar locations. I also am a fan of any technology that makes the distribution and sale of fresh foods easier relative to the inherent advantages of shelf-stable, preservative-laden, traditional vending machine fare. This could be a valuable technology to increase access to healthy foods in food deserts.

However, what excites me most about Pantry is seeing RFID tags in action and envisioning their implications beyond retail vending: namely, smart refrigerator technology.

The potential for smart fridge technology

From the consumer angle, I see two meaningful and high-impact opportunities for smart fridges, both driven by an increased ability for the consumer to monitor and understand what is coming in and out of their refrigerators:

1)    Data on food consumed: Over the years, I’ve been beckoned by the siren’s call of the quantified self – the idea that you could track massive amounts of personal data (your sleep, your exercise, your diet, your alcohol consumption, your mood, your day-to-day health) and run a giant regression to start to better understand what drives the day-to-day fluctuations in how you feel. A key input to that equation is  food consumed, and to-date I haven’t found an accurate technology that makes tracking that input easy and passive. I once spent a summer manually recording everything I ate. It was exhausting and definitely not sustainable nor practicable for the average person, who I’d assume has far less interest in the topic than I do. I’ve always viewed the automated, passive collection of food consumption data as a holy grail of quantified self. Smart fridges don’t get you all the way there (since we consume plenty of food outside the home, and what goes in and out of fridge can be consumed by more than one person), but they would be a step closer to automated data collection. That excites me.

2)    Data on food waste and spoilage: A topic that was addressed in a Mixing Bowl panel (and covered at length on this blog earlier this year) is food waste. As previously articulated, there is massive opportunity to improve our diets by eliminating the expense of wasted food and using the saved money to upgrade to more nutritious food. The average family of four throws away $1600 worth of food per year, which is a huge figure when compared to the estimated incremental cost to the same family of adopting a healthy diet: $2000 per year. One hypothesis for reducing the amount of food wasted is to increase consumer awareness of what’s actually being thrown out (and how much money could be saved). Smart fridges which utilize sensors to alert the consumer of food that’s soon-to-spoil and then tally the value of food which spoils could go a long way in increasing transparency around this issue and motivating behavior change.

Pantry is aware of this opportunity and helps food vendors monitor and avoid food waste. Though food waste at retail is substantially smaller than food waste by the end-consumer (~13% of total food waste vs. 55%, respectively), there still is an opportunity to reduce waste. Via RFID tags, Pantry monitors the age of each item it holds and alerts retailers once an item has passed its shelf life. These data could help vendors make better decisions around how much to produce, how to stock aging food, and how to quantify food waste.

For a more in-depth review of RFID technology to date, and the vision of the smart fridge, this article is a worthwhile read.

What’s next for Pantry

For now, Pantry is focused on selling their technology to food service providers, particularly within workplace and hospital cafeterias. Current customers include Stanford Hospital & Clinics, UCSF Medical Center, Lemnos Labs (hardware startup incubator, previously featured on this blog here and here), and cloud platform provider Akamai. Longer-term, Pantry also sees the promise of incorporating their technology into the home and consumer market.

Here is Tkachenko on Pantry’s near-term priorities:

“We’re currently working with cafeterias to augment their food programs – both in terms of staying open around the clock and in terms of placing Pantries in remote locations around campuses. With around 30,000 cafeterias around the US, we have our work cut out for us in this market. However, we recognize the broad appeal of cheap and efficient brick and mortal point of sale and will be looking for quality food partners to place a Pantry into either locations with no food options (like gyms or smaller offices without a cafeteria) or as a true grab n’ go kiosk within existing eateries.”

Congrats, Pantry team, on Friday’s business plan competition win! I’m looking forward to witnessing your future growth and development.

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If You Can’t Beat ‘Em…Steal Their Playbook

“We are simply not winning the war. And it is a war.”

IMG_6964_croppedTodd Putman, a former chief of marketing for Coca Cola North America, minced no words as he strolled across the stage at the 2014 Childhood Obesity Bay Area (COBA) conference. As the event’s afternoon keynote speaker, Putman commanded the attention of several hundred rapt – if not dubious – physicians, health educators, students, food entrepreneurs, and parents. All in attendance agreed with Putman about the monumental struggle at hand for the health of America’s children. Whether each listener would characterize the proliferation of metabolic disorder and its repercussive afflictions as a “war” was a question of personal interpretation. Yet, even the most tenderhearted audience members would not shy away from bellicose language on one point: Putman and his kind were the enemy. Or, at least Putman used to be.

Putman was invited to conclude the day’s proceedings because he no longer shills sugar water for our generation’s Philip Morris. The weight of “karmic debt” compelled Putman to employ his talents promoting healthier products. Putman has most recently stewarded substantial multi-year compound annual growth in carrot sales as chief marketing officer of Bolthouse Farms. And his speech focused on how he had gotten more kids (and adults) to eat beta carotene-rich produce.

Putman, Bolthouse CEO Jeff Dunn (another former Coke executive), and their team launched a series of cheeky, creative, and visceral campaigns to build more of a persona around their company (“Juiced By A Bunch of Carrot Farmers”), baby carrots (“Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food”) and other produce (“The Food Porn Index”). They also developed innovative flavors and packaging to make carrots more attractive to palates attuned to the gustatory wallop of junk food.

As Putman described the fascinating ways in which Bolthouse had increased sales, one could plainly see the energy rising amongst much of the audience. Putman was handing over the keys to the castle: tried-and-true tactics for compelling at-risk eaters to make better food purchases. (Another great example of this school of marketing: “Broccoli vs. Kale.”)

But those tactics also alarmed a cadre of health education purists who bridled at Putman’s fundamental thesis: decisions are driven by emotions and urges; emotions and urges are shaped by marketing; and marketing sells products. In other words, Putman succeeded at Coke by stealthily (nay…at times, quite conspicuously) kneading his audience’s subconscious minds, and was succeeding again by taking a similar tack at Bolthouse.  As Putman put it:

When is the last time you saw anything rational in a soda ad? There’s nothing rational in it. Why? They don’t have anything rational to say or sell. They do emotional. On the other hand, we (in the healthy food industry) have rational, and we (market) rational, and it doesn’t work!

An Inconvenient Truth

The American grocery store is a cornucopia of choice: the average store contains over 40,000 unique items. As the modern food system has evolved a panoply of shelf stable, sumptuously packaged, imperiously contrived, and ultra-low priced “foodstuffs,” it has become incumbent on each food company to tell people why they should buy a specific product. The reality of this situation is elegantly captured in one of the simplest tropes of economic thought: the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Unless all food companies were to collectively and unanimously agree[i] to stop marketing their wares, any one company must actively market its product, knowing full well that passive abstention (even in conscientious protest of often corrupt competition) will result in a loss in the game.[ii]

And, for better or worse, the exchange of money for goods is a sort of game. Someone making a purchase perceives value in a good. The game for a marketer lies in getting people to perceive value.

The best marketers – even the understated ones – know that value takes many forms, and that the most powerful forms are emotional. Seemingly rational elements of marketing – “fewer calories”; “no GMOs” – are actually appeals to emotion and a sense of aspirational identity. One textbook marketing practice is to establish different “consumer[iii] segments,” demarked by different lifestyles and desires. To a professional marketer, a person seeking low-calorie products may be a middle-aged man compelled to lose weight by physician’s counsel and memories of a trim youthful figure (fear of death; disappointment; vanity; desire for control). A person looking to avoid GMO’s might be a young college student striving to make a political statement through her purchase behavior (assertion of identity; fear of an uncertain future; desire for impact). Underlying these “consumer segments” are shared emotions, impulses, buzz words, signals, hot buttons…the clay plied in a clever marketer’s hands. And once an emotional chord is struck, it can reverberate for a very, very long time. Thus why marketers size up a consumer with a presumptuous metric called “customer lifetime value.”

One of Coca Cola’s most successful historic marketing efforts – the “Share a Smile” campaign – evoked the most aspirational emotion of all: happiness. (Boldly, Coke now hosts a webpage called “What Is Happiness?”) To many under the spell of that simple motto, a can of Coca Cola represents a respite from the strains of daily life; an effervescent escapism; a modest treat; a reward for hard work; a way to connect with others; or whatever else people conjure up when they smile, or even think of smiling. And, for many satisfied consumers, getting all of those rewards from a shiny red can that costs less than a buck represents a great value. Marketing goal achieved.

Kids, in particular, value marketing associations. Thus why sales of Disney-branded fruits and vegetables tripled in 2013.

Heads In The Sand

Food choices are shaped by many factors besides cost. Another deserved set of topics of focus at COBA was early-life family eating practices and dietary habits formed in youth. Even Putman highlighted the importance of childhood imprint years when he said, “the things that we do to kids’ palates early on have a monstrous effect on what they eat and buy later on.” (Thus why Bolthouse is “working to get fruits and veggies a seat at the cool kids’ table.”)

It is marketing to kids during imprint years that has contributed heavily to today’s epidemics. We know all too well that the barrage of mawkish mascot advertisements during several decades of Saturday morning cartoons helped shape millions of addictions to saccharine cereals (“They’re grrrrrreat!”) and titillating toaster strudels (my childhood weakness). I believe it is because of this history that some proponents of healthier eating oppose the marketing of any food to kids.

The most prominent no-marketing champion I’ve encountered is the legendary Marion Nestle. On two occasions, I’ve tried to learn whether she thinks food producers can play a role in getting people to make better choices. During a speech she gave at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, I submitted a question asking her opinion on which food companies – even those that lightly process their product – are helping remedy the various diet-related health crises in America. Her answer to the audience: “None. I don’t think anyone should eat any processed food at all, and I can’t name a single company.”[iv] Her answer brusquely disregarded companies that got people more to eat salad by packing chopped vegetables into pre-made salad mix; processors that compelled people through clever marketing to trade potato chips for seasoned, nutrient-packed nuts; and entrepreneurs that persuaded people to pay more for sustainably-raised meat by making a tasty, aesthetically-pleasing packaged jerky out of it. Nestle’s answer further troubled me, inasmuch as any young people in the audience who wanted to work for – or establish – a values-driven food company were likely left very confused and discouraged.

I had occasion to speak one-on-one with Nestle at another event a few months later, and asked a more specific question: did she think that clever and innovative ways of marketing produce to kids were justified if they helped develop kids’ palates for healthy food? Her answer to me was no, she didn’t think food should be marketed to kids, ever. Her belief was that it costs a food company too much money to market broadly, and that it is financially unsustainable for a low-margin produce company to keep up marketing in perpetuity.

Nestle’s categorical dismissal of financially sustainable marketing struck me as overly pessimistic. We live in an era of low-cost viral videos, social media marketing, demographic-oriented media channels, and increasing awareness of the importance of healthy eating. Where was the room for hope? Or a recognition of cost-effective tactics that work?

While I have immense respect for Nestle’s body of work[v], it struck me that she was trying to wish away the realities of the current system rather than offer up case studies of those succeeding within a set of rules that any one player can’t quickly change. To someone who has worked in the food business and recognizes the Prisoner’s Dilemma at play, Nestle comes across as someone who has made perfect the enemy of good.

Is All Marketing Vulgar?

IMG_6958_croppedI understand Nestle’s – and others’ – inherent distrust of food companies. Bolthouse, for all its success getting kids to eat more baby carrots, has also been buoyed by sales of sugar-rich bottled smoothies that have lost much healthful content during processing. Is getting a kid to pick a bag of carrots instead a side of french fries a “win” in the fight against metabolic disorder? Yes. Is a fruit and veggie smoothie better than a soda? Somewhat (although water would be better yet). But the stubborn truth remains that getting the average kid to pick those products likely depends – heavily – upon effective marketing.

The major issue with food marketing is the ease with which any company can mislead, if not outright deceive, potential customers. A shrewd reader of recent food news has likely seen the POM Wonderful vs. Coca Cola lawsuit in the headlines. The courts – culminating with the U.S. Supreme Court – found that Coke had not violated any laws by marketing a Minute Maid “Pomegranate Blueberry Juice Blend” that contained a mere 0.3% pomegranate juice and 0.2% blueberry juice by volume. Yet, even if Coke didn’t break the law, certainly they broke our trust. And we’ll read labels more carefully the next time, or avoid Minute Maid altogether.

In my opinion, the “line” on marketing should be drawn by three parties: government, consumers, and the leaders of companies themselves. The government continues to establish and review marketing laws in both the legislative and judicial branches. Consumers continue to bring class-action lawsuits and publicly shame companies that breach our collective standards. We must continue to play referee, and call a foul when we see one. In the Internet age, this is increasingly easy to do. Stirring up public indignation is often only a few keystrokes and clicks away.

And, importantly, we need to openly laud companies and organizations that practice truthful, clever, and savvy marketing that brings healthy products (particularly unprocessed produce) into more American households. It is only by commending moralistic actors that we can show a path of promise to aspiring change agents in the food system. Even if you don’t like the game, it behooves us all to celebrate the players whose play we admire. When Bolthouse says it wants to partner with customers to be “agents of social change” and put produce front and center in the national conversation about food, and then does so through campaigns like the Food Porn Index, we should stand up and applaud their success. By offering up carrots (pun intended) as well as sticks, we incentivize better corporate conduct.

An Alternative Marketing Model for Produce

One of the most promising innovations in healthy food marketing occurred long ago, but isn’t oft discussed. Collective marketing boards represent disparate crop growers and processors to the public, and are typically financed by a pennies-per-pound-sold tax on growers’ sales. They’ve been around for a long time, and Putman shared a heartening statistic during his talk: out of 68 different U.S.-based collective marketing boards Putman had researched, all 68 had conducted marketing campaigns that had shown a positive return on investment. And in industries like almonds and avocados, collective marketing boards have been wildly successful in selling more product.

The result has been positive for growers and citizens. Is this the type of marketing that we should castigate as well? Or should we be encouraging young marketing talent to take the reins at such organizations? Who knows how much more fresh produce we could sell if emotionally creative professionals working with collective marketing boards were winning advertising awards over the career stiffs at Kraft?

The excellent new documentary Fed Up points out that, for a time, the government mandated that each cigarette TV ad be followed by an anti-smoking ad.[i] Until junk food ads are banned (I won’t hold my breath), what if we demand flashy one-to-one ads for spinach and lentils to offset each junk food spot? If a produce company is willing to step up and market on Saturday morning, should we dissuade them? Or empower them?

What Are We To Think?

Those of us who would like to drive positive change (public health; environmental impact; social equity; you name it) in the food system should learn from the fact that effective marketing and emotional appeals work. Marketing builds markets. As my onetime employer and successful healthy food entrepreneur Stewart Resnick has said, “You must build demand ahead of supply.” Marketing – if practiced with both virtue and inventiveness – is not necessarily a tawdry practice. It’s a necessary plank of psychological attraction. If the war is to be won, we almost certainly must accept emotive appeals as a fact, and develop vigorous tactics to employ them.

More baby carrots, anyone?


[i] Government could also ban all food marketing by fiat, but, in my opinion, this is impracticable. Even setting tighter standards on nutrition label content has been a massive political battle, one heavily shaped by lobbyist dollars from megalithic food enterprises. And those enterprises have a stalwart interest in perpetuating the system that put them on top.

[ii] And it’s a game with a big payoff: more than half of all food dollars spent in the U.S. are on meals at home, a.k.a. groceries.

[iii] The very word “consumer” connotes, to me, an inexhaustible, gnash-jawed automaton that just needs to be coaxed in the proper direction by the shiniest dangling lure.

[iv] Quotation approximated from my notes. I could not find audio, video, or a transcript of the event on the Internet.

[v] Nestle’s book Food Politics is, in my opinion, one of the most important works in the American food system reform movement. Nestle has also been a prolific and dauntless “public shamer” of food companies who practice sleazy marketing to kids.

[vi] Before cigarette ads were banned from TV altogether in 1971.

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Flying Bird Botanicals: Tea with Integrity

tea_bag1The tea industry has been pulling the wool over consumers’ eyes. Unbeknownst to most drinkers, many of whom are choosing to drink tea for healing and soothing benefits, teas can be packed with pesticides, toxins, added flavors, and GMO ingredients. My best friend emailed me this tea exposé by the Food Babe, shocked by its contents. A few points from her article of note:

  • 91% of Celestial Seasonings tea tested had pesticide residues exceeding the U.S. limits
  • 100% of Teavana loose leaf tea tested was found to contain pesticides (77 percent of the teas would be banned from import into the EU)
  • Fancy mesh tea bags like those used in Mighty Leaf and Tea Forte are made of (likely GMO) corn-based material or plastics which may break down and leach in boiling water
  • Many paper tea bags are treated with epichlorohydrin, a potential carcinogen shown to cause cancer in animals

So, what to do amongst all these tea dangers? You can start by doing your research. The Food Babe provides a quick reference chart to compare brand-by-brand. You can glean a good amount from ingredient labels however they won’t necessarily tell you what the bags are made of or treated with, and what sort of glue they might be using to close them.

FB_Logo12v2Luckily, I don’t have to invest the time researching because I have a favorite tea brand I trust entirely. Flying Bird Botanicals is a Bellingham, Washington-based, family-run, organic and wild-harvested tea producer. Full disclosure: Its founder, Scout Urling, is my husband’s step-sister (my step-sister-in-law?) but I’m guessing I’d be pretty obsessed with the company even if I didn’t know her. I’m especially excited because Flying Bird recently reached the point where it’s ready to scale. Until now I was hesitant to promote the business so as to not over-burden Scout. Now she’s ready so here I go. Here’s why I’m obsessed with Flying Bird Botanicals (or hear it from Scout directly via this video interview):

They choose their ingredients carefully: Most of their ingredients are organic, with a few exceptions that are intentionally sourced wild because, “sometimes the wild version is just better.” They source ingredients as locally as possible, with 80%+ coming from local farms. What they can’t get locally they source from fair trade and organically-certified farms around the world. Scout has apprenticed for herbalists, taken courses in herbal studies, attended many an herbal conference, and graduated from a midwifery program. She knows her stuff and won’t settle for less-than-the-best in terms of freshness, quality, and sustainability.

They’re on the forefront of technology: In 2013, Flying Bird began bagging their teas via a partnership with Seattle-based Motovotano. To preserve the integrity of its blends while employing the tea bag format, Flying Bird worked with Motovotano to produce the first ever “synchronized real-time blended tea bag,” which means each ingredient in a blend is individually dosed by weight so the blend is consistent from cup-to-cup (as opposed to manufacturers parsing out tea bags from a massive mixture where the bag-to-bag ratios may vary). As Scout puts it, “you’re getting exactly what we intended the cup to taste like in each bag.”

Flying Bird Botanicals tea offering

Flying Bird Botanicals tea offering

The packaging is beautiful and sustainable: The labels are lovingly designed by Carly James of Bison Bookbinding & Letterpress and printed on unbleached recycled-backed paper. They’re adhered to tins of recycled steel made in the USA. The bags are made of fully biodegradable low-GMO biomesh (the best that’s available right now), sealed ultrasonically without glue. Flying Bird is currently working with a company in Japan to source a completely non-GMO plant fiber to use in their tea bags which at this point does not exist. Luckily other like-minded tea companies are also looking to source certified non-GMO biomesh (including Rishi and Two Leave and a Bud), raising overall demand and the likelihood a product will be released.

The products are awesome: A story and strong ethics can only take a business so far if the product doesn’t deliver. Her blends are like nothing else. I’ve been drinking the Bluebird Morning for the past month and loving it. It’s delicious and I love that it promotes circulation and gives me energy without any caffeine.

Scout serving tea at the San Francisco International Gift Fair in February

Scout serving tea at the San Francisco International Gift Fair in February

Scout and her team pour their hearts and souls into the business: I love this quote from the video, “Thought and intention goes into everything we create…Even if tomorrow Flying Bird Botanicals as a business didn’t exist it would always exist for us because this is just what we do.”

To find Flying Bird Botanicals teas along with their fair trade drinking chocolates and personal care products (I love the rosewater toner), visit their Etsy shop, browse a collection of products on Rodale’s, or ask your local natural foods store to get in touch with Scout and start carrying her products.

Wholesome Cleanse detox tea featuring organic red raspberry leaf, wild & organic nettles, organic oat tops and straw, organic alfalfa, organic red clover tops, organic sage, organic calendula flower, organic lemon balm, organic dandelion root, wild oregon grape root, organic burdock root, organic fennel and organic spearmint

Wholesome Cleanse detox tea featuring organic red raspberry leaf, wild & organic nettles, organic oat tops and straw, organic alfalfa, organic red clover tops, organic sage, organic calendula flower, organic lemon balm, organic dandelion root, wild Oregon grape root, organic burdock root, organic fennel and organic spearmint

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Rising to the Food Waste Challenge: Panel Recap

In December, Local Food Lab and Edible Startups hosted a panel highlighting innovative approaches to food waste entitled, “Rising to the Food Waste Challenge.” It was a fascinating conversation and, given it felt like we barely scratched the surface, is a topic we’ll address again in future events. Stay tuned!


From left to right, Patricia, Kelly, Stu, and moderator Austin Kiessig

From left to right, Patricia, Kelly, Stu, and moderator Austin Kiessig

According to an August 2012 report by the National Resources Defense Council (“Wasted”), in the US we waste a whopping 40% of our food each year. An estimated 64 billion pounds of surplus food is dumped into landfills each year, valued at $165 billion, and disposed of at a cost of $750 million per year. A typical American family of four throws away $1,600 in food every year – a number that’s especially interesting when compared to the incremental cost to a family of four of eating healthy every year: $2,016 a year. The purpose of this panel was to bring together and highlight organizations which are tackling this astonishing amount of waste via a range of strategies. Our panel featured:

  1. Roger Gordon, Co-Founder, Food Cowboy: DC-based startup which works with truckers, caterers, and supply chain companies to divert food from landfills to food banks
  2. Kelly Ernst Friedman, Program Director, Food Shift: Oakland-based nonprofit which works collaboratively with communities to develop long-term sustainable solutions to reduce food waste, most known for their fall 2013 education campaign via ads on BART
  3. Stu Rudick, Social Impact Investor, Mindfull Investors and Co-Founder, FoodStar Partners: Bay Area startup which works with retailers to sell soon-to-be-discarded food or produce which don’t meet aesthetic standards via flash sales
  4. Patricia Kelly, Business Development, Lean Path: Portland-based supplier of automated food waste tracking systems for hospitals, colleges, and restaurants
  5. Anea Botton, Founder, Valley Girls Foodstuffs: Seller of value-added food products made with gleaned produce and employing at-risk teens in Sonoma County (previously profiled in Edible Startups as part of an early Local Food Lab incubator class)
  6. Ashley Beleny, PR, Zero Waste Energy: Bay Area organization operating the world’s largest dry fermentation anaerobic digestion facility in San Jose to convert compost into energy (estimated to process ~90K tons per year of organic waste into 1.6MW of renewable energy and 32,000 tons of compost)

The barriers to reducing food waste

Food waste ecosystemClearly the amount of food wasted is huge. Waste spans the food value chain (shown above), with the highest share attributable to consumer losses (55% of total waste – food thrown out at home, unfinished dishes at restaurants i.e., “plate waste”) though a material amount of waste also occurs at the production, processing, and retail steps. Why does this waste occur? There are a few key barriers to more efficient usage of food that are important to understand when thinking about solutions:

1) Logistics and information: The ability to match supply and demand of food is a significant challenge. Across the value chain, organizations and individuals faced with excess food often do not have an outlet for selling or donating that food. Roger highlighted that, “the supply chain is 24/7 while most food banks operate Monday through Friday from 9-5. They don’t have adequate resources to staff volunteers beyond that.” He also cited that total food bank donations in a year are equal to the amount our supply chain wastes in 19 days (!). Stu agreed, “What’s missing is information – what can you do with food that’s going to be thrown out?” Both Food Cowboy and FoodStar are trying to provide that information, to truckers and retailers respectively.

Another interesting information challenge is the fact that many organizations aren’t aware of the scale of food they’re wasting. LeanPath is helping food service organizations like hospitals, colleges, hotels, and casinos gain transparency into their own waste. As Patricia noted, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

2) Economics: Food waste seems to be a straightforward enemy – something most people would agree is a bad thing. However, like any systemic issue, there are incentives in place which support the status quo. The profitability of the grocery industry depends upon food waste. If consumers were to suddenly rationalize their grocery purchases to achieve near-zero waste, the grocery industry would take a massive hit. Roger cited that, “adjusting the supply of produce to meet demand [in terms of what is actually consumed] would take the grocery industry from a 1.5% average profit margin to a 0.7% loss—waste is essential to our economy.” How essential? $165B is about 1% of the US’s ~$17T nominal GDP; we’re not talking about the lifeblood of our economy, but the hit wouldn’t be immaterial either.

Across the food value chain, economics work in both directions – producers, distributors, and retailers profit from their customers continuing to over-purchase and waste, but all these groups would benefit if they were able to reduce the waste that hits their own bottom line (i.e., if retailers were able to reduce the amount of unsold food they throw out, or if consumers could save the money they spend on food they don’t eat). The fact that economics aren’t working entirely against change makes solutions to this problem more feasible than in other food areas.

3) Culture/norms: Our norms promote a degree of food waste in the retail and consumer stages of the value chain. Ideas about the aesthetics of foods as well as confusion around “sell by” dates cause both retailers and consumers to discard good food. We are quick to dismiss bruised apples, brown bananas, wilted greens, etc. when taste and nutritional value may be perfectly good. Anea deals with this issue on-the-ground in Sonoma where she regularly procures produce that can’t be sold due to aesthetic reasons to use in her jams, pickled goods, and dried fruits. She explains, “Reeducation around produce aesthetics is hard.” Her secret weapon: empowered teenagers. “Get teenagers on board and behind a cause and they’ll tell everyone. They’ll change the attitudes of those around them because they’re influential.” I love Anea’s approach to making change in her community.

An obvious strategy to overcome the cultural barrier is discounting. If we go back to economics, at some point the price can be low enough that the demand for bruised, past-date, or otherwise sub-optimal food would meet supply. This is what Doug Rauch, the former President of Trader Joe’s, is doing with his new concept Daily Table, set to launch this May in Boston. Daily Table will take blemished food, use it to prepare meals, and sell those hot meals along with grocery staples (eggs, milk, bread, produce) at “junk food prices.” However this approach raises controversy: Roger protests that, “it’s not the duty of the poor to consume discarded food. This would institutionalize the problem of food waste and excuse it.” I understand his point, but the economist in me can’t help thinking that matching willing buyers with willing sellers at the right price is a good alternative to letting resources go to waste.

Opportunities, not problems

IMG_4750In a sector packed with trade-offs (big food vs. local producers, organics vs. GMOs, carbs vs. fats), few issues are win-win-win. Reducing food wastes offers the holy grail – environmental benefits, economic benefits (to an extent), and health benefits (improved nutrition by getting good food to those who need it). Beyond that, there’s something visceral about food waste. As Anea pointed out, “yes there are environmental and economic reasons to not waste food but beyond that there’s an innate feeling of sadness we all experience when we see food wasted.” So we can add emotional benefits to that list.

As the panel pointed out, the food waste conversation should be about opportunities, not about problems. So what are the opportunities? Food Shift is working to add employment to the list of benefits from reduced waste. They’re working to create jobs in food recovery, similar to what SF’s Food Runners do: they pick up excess food from businesses (restaurants, caterers, bakeries, hospitals, event planners, corporate cafeterias, and hotels) and deliver it (15+ tons per week) to neighborhood food programs. The challenge is to create paid jobs and not volunteer positions. I’ll be curious to see how Food Shift manages to sustainably fund paid positions, beyond using grant dollars.

There are also abundant opportunities in new sectors and technologies. To name a few:

  • Technologies which postpone spoilage by reducing oxygen: BluApple and FreshPaper both sell products which prolong fruit and vegetable shelf-life within the fridge; Organic Girl salad greens, along with many pre-rinsed salad producers, use technology to remove oxygen from their packaging
  • Innovation which reduces time from field to fridge
  • Companies which dis-intermediate retail altogether (Good Eggs, Quinciple, other online food delivery startups) to remove a step (and the corresponding waste) from the value chain
  • Anaerobic digestion technology for turning food waste into energy, like that created by Zero Waste Energy
  • One idea I loved from the panel is a branding/conscious consumerism campaign around food waste similar to “Eat Local” – some way to denote brands which perform above average in terms of waste so consumers can reward them with their dollars

A big thank you to our panelists, our hosts at the Dutch Consulate, and Kama Food Lab for providing tasty snacks at the event.

Note: The panel was recorded and broadcast by C-SPAN, and an online video of the event is available here: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/FoodW.


From left to right, Patricia, Kelly, Stu, moderator Austin Kiessig, Roger, Anea and Ashley

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Flipping the Pyramid: “Cereal Killers” and the Scourge of Sugar

cereal-killers-movie1On January 29, 2014, I was privileged to view a screening of Donal O’Neill’s new hour-long documentary, “Cereal Killers.” The Kickstarter-backed film follows O’Neill (producer and protagonist) through Cape Town as he embarks on a medically-supervised departure from the routine Western diet. Hewing to the immersive one-month “Super-Size Me” formula, O’Neill flips the modern USDA food pyramid on its head and eliminates practically all carbohydrates from his diet. In their stead, he makes fat the bedrock of his energy intake for four weeks. O’Neill precisely calibrates his nourishment: 70 percent calories from fat, with the balance made up largely from protein and fiber from produce. (If you’re curious how he gets to 70 percent calories from fat, I suggest you see the film. I was delighted that nuts were a keystone element of his diet.)

The results of the experiment are remarkable. (Spoiler alert!) O’Neill loses weight, enjoys increased energy, improves his athletic performance, and reduces his measures on a medley of biometric risk tests to “pristine” levels. The last point is especially pertinent: O’Neill’s motivation to change his diet stems from his grapple with the prevalence of heart disease and metabolic disorder in his lineage. O’Neill’s father – a lifelong elite athlete –suffered a mid-life heart attack, which forced O’Neill to confront difficult questions about his own diet and health. By the end of the experiment, O’Neill’s physicians are delighted to assure him that he has taken his once-elevated risk of heart disease (among other things) down to nil. At the core of this film are some profound questions about ability to influence our own mortality.

The Shifting Science of Nutrition

Also at the core of this film is an unremitting demonization of simple carbohydrates. The biometric outcomes of O’Neill’s foray are truly significant, and a new consensus of scientific opinion is aligning that helps us understand why. In recent years, a repentant parade of cardiologists has emerged in collective mea culpa, pronouncing that the true primary driver of the obesity and heart disease epidemics is not, as once thought, the consumption of fat, but rather the prominence of refined carbohydrates in our diets. (With heart disease, omega-6-rich oils can also cause serious issues. But many of the fats we have castigated in the past – such as those from butter – don’t appear to actually cause heart issues.) The science behind these assertions is illuminating, and I will leave it to the experts to elucidate further: Dr. Robert Lustig is a highly potent anti-sugar crusader, as is Gary Taubes*, a science journalist and the author of the truly exceptional book “Why We Get Fat.” In short, our heavy consumption of refined carbohydrates stimulates chronic inflammation in the body, the production of low-density LDL cholesterol (the cause of arterial plaque), and a cascade of maleficent health effects: metabolic disorder, cancers, Alzheimers, and other serious ailments.

The ubiquity of sugar and processed carbohydrates in our most beloved food products is no mystery. While O’Neill doesn’t dwell for long on why he chose breakfast cereal as the titular boogieman for his film, it’s the perfect product upon which to focus skepticism of refined carbs. Michael Moss details the history of the cereal industry in his penetrating work of investigatory journalism, “Salt, Sugar, Fat.” While reading it, I was amazed to learn that the gaudy boxes I conned my parents into buying me as a kid contained cereal with between 40 percent and 70 sugar by volume. As those cereals soak into their milk medium, they create a rapidly digestible liquid injection of glucose, which, despite having more nutrients, is metabolically not all that different from soda. When we consider that such cereals are the first thing that many of us put into our bodies for thousands of mornings as we grew up, it’s no wonder that we ended up with millions of obese and sick kids.

CerealsMoss also describes how sugar creates a commanding mechanism of reward and dependency in our brains. The way sugar stimulates our pleasure centers is nearly identical to, and just as strong as (particularly in children), the addiction profile of many illegal drugs (and tobacco). For anyone with a sweet tooth who blindly craves a hit of saccharine bliss after every lunch and dinner (like me), you understand how powerful – if seemingly innocent – sugar urges can be.

“Cereal Killers” highlights the way a person must eat if they are intent on avoiding all sugar and highly processed foods. With refined carbs and the types of oils found in packaged meals considered “out of bounds,” O’Neill spends a considerable amount of time cooking for himself and carefully selecting fresh meals outside of his home. He takes some flak from a friend for championing a diet that is expensive and out of reach for people who live in “food deserts.” But O’Neill’s path is instructive in important ways: he nobly seeks out “perfect” whole foods (eggs are a favorite), eats a sizeable volume of vegetarian-friendly stuff (leafy greens, berries, nuts), and adopts a laudable conscientiousness about what he is putting in his body.  (As a side note, one thorny issue raised by this movie is how much animal fat and protein O’Neill consumes to reach his macronutrient goals. I think that if someone wants to emulate the diet, the provenance of their fat and protein is largely a question left to personal preference. There are many vegetarian sources of both.)

Marketing Fat

One recurring thought I had as I watched the film was: If we have a reflexive cultural disdain for fat, how do we reorient that instinct? Doesn’t dietary fat face a big marketing problem? Indeed, it is difficult to grasp that fat is not really what has been making us fat. We have been taught that fat in diet equals fat in the body, and this belief reverberates with a pleasantly simple logic. But there is not a scientific link between weight gain and high volumes of fat in a calorie-balanced diet (meaning calories ingested = calories burned). However, there is evidence that eating high volumes of simple carbs in a calorie-balanced diet can cause weight gain (this has to do with glucose spikes, insulin response and energy storage). We increasingly understand that not all calories affect us equivalently. (Sadly, the legendary Marion Nestle does not acknowledge the science explaining how differently sugar and processed carbohydrates behave in the body. She is a strict calorie-balancer, but, to my knowledge, has not taken a stance on the mix of macronutrients that make up our diets.)

O'Neill black and whiteOne promising means of marketing fat is its role in superior athletic conditioning. “Cereal Killers” makes a compelling case that athletes who replace carbohydrates with fat can achieve sustained increases in performance. This, too, upends the traditional paradigm of carbs being an athlete’s best friend.

There are two elements to the performance increase. First, removing inflammation-causing carbohydrates from our diet allows our bodies to heal and recover faster. In the film, University of Cape Town professor Tim Noakes (a legendary runner and former condemner of dietary fat) giddily reviews O’Neill’s post-experiment markers of inflammation (white blood cell count and c-reactive proteins). Noakes points out that O’Neill’s body is generally healthier not because fat was inherently good for him, but rather because carbohydrates were so bad for him – particularly given O’Neill’s genetic reactivity to carbs.

Second, replacing carbohydrates with fat results in greater energy access during prolonged workouts. Athletes that principally consume carbohydrates tend to suffer from spikes and crashes in blood glucose and muscle glycogen. At the film screening I attended, physician Dr. Steve Phinney explained how athletes can train their bodies to burn fatty foods and fat stores in the body instead of relying on constant infusions of carbohydrates. Achieving this state of metabolic processing (known as ketogenesis) results in a far more stable and balanced energy load.** (Personal note: I think this is a pretty extreme diet, and takes time, deeper knowledge, and controlled experimentation to achieve. Anyone who wants to become ketogenic should do more research. Most “weekend warrior” athletes do fine using carbohydrates in their training regimen.)

For the non-athlete, though, the motivation to adopt a higher-fat diet has to come from elsewhere. Certainly, a yearning for better health could be a motivating factor, but, as I have written elsewhere, simply having a desire for improved health is not always a sufficient condition for a major dietary change. That said, the anti-sugar backlash is spreading (see: multi-year declines in soda sales), and low- or no-sugar snacks are flourishing in the marketplace. The Paleo diet is popular in part because of its low-carb mentality, and a slew of startups have emerged to satisfy demands from that demographic. I believe the food industry has a big role to play in creating more demand for high-fat, high-protein, low-carb foods, by developing attractive products as consumer consciousness of the harm caused of processed carbohydrates grows.

Whether those companies can successfully market higher contents of certain types of dietary fats remains to be seen. Any well-intentioned food company will run headlong into fat-phobic consumers. During the “low-fat” craze of the 80’s and 90’s, many eaters were conditioned to see fat as a blinking red light on the nutrition label. The recent growth in sales of almonds, pistachios, and avocados, for instance, is because those industries were able to surmount a consumer education threshold and brand their products as delivery vehicles for the “good kind” of fat. Consumer acceptance hinged on folks’ recognition that there was a “good kind” of fat in the first place, and that realization was galvanized by research at universities and non-profits. As more high-quality nutritional science touts the virtues of eliminating sugar and simple carbs, the food product landscape should follow on – and help drive – consumption of better products.

Shifting Paradigms

I have little doubt that “Cereal Killers” will help promote the high-fat/low-carbohydrate diet, if for no other reason than O’Neill is a physical specimen who, by virtue of his very physique, resoundingly overturns the popular “dietary fat = body fat” paradigm. O’Neill loses weight during the experiment, even with a very light exercise regimen. In short, he helps make a case for the vanity impact of cutting out carbs and ramping up fat intake. Aspirational self-image is a powerful driver of behavior, so just seeing O’Neill live out the experiment presents a tantalizingly adequate burden of proof. (The documentary only follows O’Neill for 28 days, but I can attest that, many months after filming and sticking to the diet, O’Neill still appears hale and spry, and still speaks highly of his overall health and test results.)

It’s important to note that O’Neill is cognizant of the caloric density of fat (nine calories per gram, versus four calories per gram in protein and carbohydrates), and keeps his total daily caloric intake equal to, or under, his total output. That is a part of why he doesn’t gain weight. What this means is that O’Neill probably spends more money to take fewer bites of food – a proposition that many American consumers will likely flinch at. And the South African people that hear O’Neill talk about his diet generally react in revulsion at the prospect of ditching sugar and grains altogether.

The way things used to be...

The way things used to be…

I think “Cereal Killers” deserves a place in the conversation about what changes need to take place in the standard American diet. It’s a powerful case study in just how off base our consensus opinions about food have been. When a person can eliminate the foundational category of the USDA food pyramid*** from his diet, and not only survive, but thrive, you have to pause and reflect. Moreover, when the body of science supporting his decision strongly indicate that simple carbohydrates have been the principal fuel behind our Western obesity epidemic, you have to wonder why the federal government has created an infrastructure of subsidies and regulations that make processed foods so bountiful and cheap.

I expect that we’ll see a proliferation of demand for more whole foods and foods with less sugar and refined carbohydrates – or at least more whole and complex grains. “Cereal Killers” should help coax the public in a praiseworthy dietary direction.


* Taubes and colleague Peter Attia have founded a 501(c)(3) called the Nutritional Science Initiative (NuSI) to try and build a high-integrity body of studies on the impact of diet on our health. Honest nutritional science studies that aren’t brokered by a food company with an agenda are hard to come by, so I feel optimistic about the work that might come out of NuSI.

** Phinney shared the story of an ultra-marathoner (100-mile races) who needed to burn between 12,000 and 14,000 calories per race, but could only pack his body with several thousand carbohydrate calories before and during the race. Phinney pointed out that the racer – despite having only six percent body fat – had 35,000 calories of fat stored in reserve. By accessing those calories, he was able to close the energy gap created by long periods of exertion. Once that racer trained his body to burn fat instead of carbohydrates, he began setting personal ultra-marathon records.

*** In fairness, the USDA has morphed the food pyramid into a food plate that promotes vegetables and fruits more strongly than the pyramid did. And although it recommends a smaller “share of plate” for grains than it once did, it doesn’t explicitly address target macronutrient ratios for fats vs. protein vs. carbohydrates.

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