The Magnificent Audacity of the FDA

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today announced courageous amendments to American nutrition label standards.

Food Labels

The changes have already raised shrill responses from processed food manufacturers, which is an early and reliable signal that the new rules will benefit public health.

The announcement is a thinly veiled acknowledgement by the FDA of a tectonic shift in public health protocol: dietary fat is not the killer we thought it was, and sugar has played a central role in our country’s epidemics of metabolic disorder, obesity, and chronic lifestyle disease.

Make no mistake about it: these changes are a win for consumers and the free market. Free markets thrive in the presence of full information that facilitates unhindered choice. Under the old standards, manufacturers could easily obfuscate the amount of sugar in a product by: 1) not disclosing added sugars (makes people think that the sugar is “naturally occurring” and thus proportionally healthy); 2) presenting nutritional information for a “serving size” that represents a fraction of the contents of the package (e.g., showing the amount of sugar in an 8 oz serving of juice while selling you a 24 oz bottle).

In addition to the sugar-specific changes, The Atlantic highlights the following as well: “’calories from fat’ will be removed because of the nature of fats vary. The labels will, however, still list ‘Total Fat,’ ‘Saturated Fat,’ and ‘Trans Fat.’” While there is still much public health guidance to be detailed regarding consumption of fats, this too is a brave admission that dietary fat and heart disease are tenuously linked. America’s era of fat phobia is easing as we become wiser and more scientific about the metabolic and physiological impacts of a long-chastised macronutrient.

Bravo, FDA. In this depressing election season, this is good news from Washington that everyone should be pleased to chew on.

More detail here:

The new Nutrition Facts label will include the following.

  • An updated design to highlight “calories” and “servings,” two important elements in making informed food choices.
  • Requirements for serving sizes that more closely reflect the amounts of food that people currently eat. …
  • Declaration of grams and a percent daily value (%DV) for “added sugars” to help consumers know how much sugar has been added to the product. …
  • “Dual column” labels to indicate both “per serving” and “per package” calorie and nutrition information for certain multi-serving food products that could be consumed in one sitting or multiple sittings. Examples include a pint of ice cream and a 3-ounce bag of chips. With dual-column labels available, people will be able to easily understand how many calories and nutrients they are getting if they eat or drink the entire package/unit at one time.
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A farm in San Francisco? This startup is doing it!

Special guest post by Mary Lemmer

It was almost two years ago when I stood staring at my backyard in frustration. The almost 3,000 square foot space had previously hosted several outdoor parties, bringing together hundreds of people over great conversation and delicious food. The backyard housed a prolific fig tree, a lemon tree, a kumquat tree, and a young olive tree. Staring at the those trees and a vast space of landscaped earth, I was inspired to put the dirt to work.

Channeling my dormant vegetable gardener and fueled by a love of produce and learning new things, I found some friends and turned my backyard into an urban farm in San Francisco. Months later, I had a garden full of fresh vegetables, so much so that I didn’t need to shop at the farmer’s market and even had extra fruits and vegetables to share with my neighbors.

Perhaps you’ve enjoyed dining at a farm-to-table restaurant, or even visited the farmer’s market to get some farm fresh produce to serve on your table.  Now, inspired by my own backyard farm’s success, my new company, Foodscape, is bringing the farm even closer to your table.  Foodscape enables people to turn their yards into farms and share the harvest with their community, just like I did with my own yard.

Foodscape is creating a Neighborhood Foodscape in San Francisco – a farm made up of backyards, empty school gardens, and other unused land in the neighborhood.  Everyone is invited to join and contribute land or procure some of the produce.  Foodscape works like a very local community supported agriculture (CSA) plot. Once a minimum number of members join, Foodscape has an experienced “foodscaper” set up and maintain the farms. Members of each foodscape pay a membership fee – $350 per season (or $60/month for 6 months) to get a share of the harvest along with optional add-on local food items (eggs, meats, cheeses, dry goods, etc) from other local farm partners. Members can also sign up to attend Backyard-to-Table multi-course dinners made with ingredients grown within the foodscape. Membership fees are used to set up and maintain the foodscape throughout the season. In addition to delicious and healthy food, members get better acquainted with their neighborhood community.

Learn more about how to start or join your own foodscape and get delicious, healthy homegrown food direct from your community, at  For those of you in San Francisco, you are invited to attend an info session on Monday, February 8, at 6:30 pm at 381 Noe St. to learn more, meet your neighbors, and enjoy farm fresh treats. Contact me at or 415-484-9749 with any questions.

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Food Isn’t Fixed. But We Are Fixing It Now.

2015. It’s hard to believe we’ve marked fifteen years in the new millennium. “2015” feels like that emblematic far-off year in a fantastical ‘80s movie. In that version of now, cars flew (or drove themselves?), eyeglasses displayed our email (oh boy…), and entire meals came in pill form (just add water!). People and planet lived radiantly together. Only alien life forms could screw it up for us.

We now shake our heads at many elements of that dated futurism. Perhaps we scoff most at the idea that fueling our bodies could be as simple as shrinking meals into a capsule. On the surface, not much about the way we nourish ourselves has changed in the past 30 years. Growing food is challenging (scaled indoor agriculture is still in its infancy); waste is huge; our health remains poor; and the war of hearts and minds is brutish (how do you get people to eat their broccoli?). Debate still rages between Slow Food and Silicon Valley; between PETA and Paleo. We haven’t cracked the code on the radical simplification of food. How fanciful, and how American, to believe in the cathartic simplicity of a pill. If only*.

And yet…

Nevertheless, the future for scaled, real solutions has never looked better. There is much reason for optimism as a number of tectonic shifts gather steam. Some elements of the food system (processing innovations, online distribution, the financial ecosystem) are changing relatively quickly, while others (the education of eaters and entrepreneurs, land use, federal policy) are morphing more slowly. However, the direction of progress throughout the Western food system is encouraging. And we all have a role to play in accelerating that progress. As we kick off 2015, let’s explore why.

The Increasingly Educated Eater

The modern history of nutritional science is sordid, indeed. Throughout that history, brash personalities gambled entire legacies on studies and hypotheses that masqueraded as high science, but were really imperfect guesses. Today, the broader population is beginning to coalesce around some of the major questions of diet and health. Excellent scientific journalism by the likes of Dr. Robert Lustig, Gary Taubes, and Nina Teicholz has laid bare the consequences of failed dietary conceits. We now know that the stealthy surge in consumption of metabolically disastrous sugar and processed carbohydrates has created a public health nightmare. We also now know that we shouldn’t have demonized certain fats: evolutionarily, they have always been an important plank of our nutrition, and the links between some dietary fats and both heart disease and weight gain were never as clear as we were made to believe.

These are not middling realizations or fads: we are talking about a fundamental reassessment of the major constituents of the food that undergirds the Standard American Diet. Vegetables are becoming cool again. Portion sizes are becoming (slightly) more modest. Coke, Pepsi, and McDonald’s have experienced stinging contractions in their U.S. business. We’re in the grip of several revolutions in consciousness, layered atop one another. And those revolutions have already engendered dietary shifts that are shaking the foundations of the Western food industry.

A Reconsideration of Food Processing

With more people seeking unprocessed foods, or at least scrutinizing ingredient labels like never before, there is unprecedented pressure on food processors. High Pressure Processing (HPP) has won enormous market share gains in bottled beverages (e.g., the “cold-pressed juice” trend), largely because it is not as destructive to nutritional integrity as pasteurization. Acidified foods are under review as they have been linked to increased prevalence of cancer and acid reflux-related problems. (Important note: not all low-pH whole foods – such as lemons – increase acidity in the body.) Sugar faces renewed investigation as an additive in 80% of foods in the center of our grocery stores. And chemical stabilizers are subject to greater consumer investigation than ever before.

The net effect of all of this is an increased impetus on food processing innovation and greater demand for real foods, delivered cleverly. Food processors that can navigate the intersection of tastiness, health, and convenience will continue to be rewarded. A visit to a major natural foods trade show like Expo West (which had a record 67,000 attendees last year) confirms how many companies are trying to deliver on this promise, and how many eaters and retailers await them.

The Technological Makeover of Retail and Distribution

Over a billion dollars have been invested into food delivery businesses by venture capital in the last 18 months. The traditional brick-and-mortar retail model is under pressure. Think about what this means for us eaters. Instead of relying on monolithic grocery chains to decide which foods are made available to us, we can increasingly turn to online distributors (many of them!) to pick precisely which foods we want delivered to our doorstep. An important bottleneck in food choice is being broadened. As we buy more of our groceries and meals online, our options will proliferate. Upstart products and brands will be able to grow more quickly than ever before. The aforementioned processing innovations will disseminate (and topple incumbents) faster than ever. This is an important spur for transformative food companies that otherwise might have toiled, cash-strapped, for many years to get a shot at a national presence. Now, a multi-region sales profile is not out of the question for a small food business that can navigate the new online sales platforms. This change is great for food producers and eaters alike.

A Better Education for Food Entrepreneurs

The food industry has myriad quirks and considerations that make entrepreneurship tricky. Thankfully, a collection of educational platforms has sprung up to help food founders learn how to build their businesses and mitigate risk. Local Food Lab has been holding startup workshops across the country. Food & Tech Connect has launched a suite of online courses. And the Culinary Institute of America has launched The Food Business School, a full-blown MBA-esque program for food entrepreneurs of all stripes. The combined impact of these programs will be a boost of rocket fuel to an already promising generation of food entrepreneurs.

Changes in Financing for New Business Models 

Food is a famously difficult industry for entrepreneurship. Because barriers to entry are low but growth is slow and painstaking, a large number of young food companies fail to progress beyond nascence. Achieving the maturity required to entice institutional investors has been the privilege of a very small fraction (perhaps less than 5%?) of food entrepreneurs.

Yet today, crowdfunding allows packaged food entrepreneurs to finance their businesses in more sophisticated and low-friction ways than ever before. By spreading risk to more investors in bite-sized nibbles of capital, entrepreneurs are able to raise more money earlier, and are simultaneously forced to hone their marketing pitches. More – and better – companies will be able to thread the crowdfunding needle. The result will be better food products for us.

As a case study that brings to life several of the above trends: I was a backer of Exo cricket protein bars on Kickstarter in mid-2013, and last week I was able to buy a case of Exo bars via an innovative new online retailer for health foods called Thrive Market. It dawned on me that Exo has achieved de facto national distribution, less than 18 months after launching via a crowdfunding platform. Five years ago, that would have been nearly unthinkable.

In addition to the very public proliferation of crowdfunding platforms (micro-investment), large-scale financial shifts are changing the way capital is raised and deployed in the agricultural value chain. Billions of dollars of institutional capital from pension funds and endowments is flooding into real assets such as farmland and food processing. Given the long-term outlook of these investors, more and more agricultural producers are being asked hard questions about the sustainability of their operations. Water use, energy and environmental impact, the nutritive quality of food products, and labor rights are all under unprecedented scrutiny from large financiers. This is a big deal. The soil and our bodies will benefit.

Enlightenment at the USDA

I recently had the privilege of spending an hour with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. In that conversation, I learned much about the new programs the USDA has launched or is developing. The list of topic areas is impressive: bringing more young people into farming careers; soil and water health; climate change risk management; sustainable land tenure policy; and food waste reduction. Given that the federal government underwrites over $200 billion in loans to the rural economy every year and channels millions more to farms through grants and investment in R&D, it should give us all hope that the USDA is taking a progressive stance on the issues of the day. Let’s all pay attention to and support these programs, and lobby to ensure that they thrive in future political administrations.

The Year of the Future…

In many ways, it’s arguable that the “future” we longed for is already unfolding. The radical transparency of modern life has forced us to ask hard questions about our hard problems. Solutions to those problems have begun to bloom. Positive changes in the food system are real, synergistic, and persistent. As eaters, shoppers, investors, and learners, it is our responsibility to enable this evolution with our choices. We don’t need a magic pill. We just need us.

*While we’re on that topic: I don’t believe Soylent is the “pill” we longed for. It merely modulates the fifty year-old nutrition shake concept, even if it is more scientifically formulated and more cleverly marketed. Soylent can sustain, but it does not nourish, and it does not supplant a real meal protocol. It is a stab at extreme reductionism in the face of an age-old challenge: what to eat, and how to get it? And let’s keep in mind that Soylent’s ingredients still come from plants. So do the ingredients of Hampton Creek, Impossible Foods, and Beyond Meat’s products. Horticulture remains the foundation of our food chain. And horticulture remains challenging.

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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:

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:

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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 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 (, 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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