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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Kuli Kuli: The Next Superfood, and a Way to Support Women in West Africa

Kuli_SamplePostcardNutrition bar startup Kuli Kuli has been on quite the ride over the past six months: launching on indiegogo in May, raising over $50K via the campaign, enlisting a co-manufacturer and perfecting the product, shipping over 9,000 bars to over 800 customers last month, and gaining approval to sell in Whole Foods Northern California. Pretty impressive for such a short time period.

I’ve tried the product, it’s delicious, and has a really awesome story behind it. Here’s why everyone should be excited about this startup’s rapid growth trajectory.

Moringa powder, the superfood ingredient in Kuli Kuli bars

Moringa powder, the superfood ingredient in Kuli Kuli bars

First, on the product: What makes the Kuli Kuli bar special? There’s a ton of product proliferation in the natural and organic packaged food world, in no aisle more prominent than the nutrition bar section. So why care about Kuli Kuli? Its claim to fame is a unique superfood ingredient: moringa. Currently available primarily in powder or capsule form, moringa seems to have what it takes to join goji berries, acai, and chia seeds in the superfood hall of fame. Right now, Kuli Kuli is the only significant food company incorporating moringa into a food product (full disclosure: through my googling I did find one other company putting moringa into bars: Dru, a London-based international organic food chain and yoga center, which has added moringa to its Dru Miracle Bar, though isn’t retailing its bars in the US).

Moringa powder comes from the leaves of a tree which grows natively in Africa, India, China, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Its nutrient-packed leaves contain, per serving, (get ready for it):

  • 7 times the vitamin C of oranges
  • 4 times the vitamin A of carrots
  • 4 times the calcium of milk
  • 3 times the potassium of bananas
  • 2 times the protein of yogurt
Kuli Kuli ingredients: dried cherries, moringa leaves, almonds, dates, and chocolate (depending on the flavor)

Kuli Kuli ingredients: dried cherries, moringa leaves, almonds, dates, and chocolate (depending on the flavor)

Combining moringa, dates, almonds, dried cherries, and chocolate (depending on the flavor), yields the gluten-free, vegan Kuli Kuli bar with 190 calories and some awesome stats: ~5 grams of protein, ~15% of your daily recommended dietary fiber, ~25% of calcium, ~25-30% of vitamin A, ~8% of vitamin C, and ~20% of iron. I compared its nutrition facts to those of Larabar (also gluten-free, vegan, and based on similar ingredients) and it seems like Kuli Kuli has two main advantages: 1) way more nutrients (Larabars average ~3% calcium, 1% vitamin A, 0% vitamin C, and 7% iron) and 2) 10% fewer calories, for a comparable amount of protein (Larabars average 210 calories).

Second, on the story: After college, founder and CEO Lisa Curtis headed to Niger with the Peace Corps, witnessed malnutrition firsthand, and fell victim to early malnutrition herself. She found her solution to the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in the nutritious leaves of the Moringa oleifera tree. Her Nigerien friends advised her to combine moringa with kuli-kuli, a peanut snack eaten by the Hausa people, the largest ethnic group in West Africa. Lisa wandered around her village looking for kuli-kuli until finally one woman understood her broken Hausa and handed her a huge sack of kuli-kuli and refused to let her pay for it. The experience of having a total stranger give her food in one of the most malnourished countries in the world stuck with her.

Founder and CEO, Lisa Curtis

Founder and CEO, Lisa Curtis

Lisa incorporated the kuli-kuli moringa mix into her diet and regained her strength. Upon returning to the U.S., she founded Kuli Kuli to improve nutrition and livelihoods by purchasing moringa from women’s cooperatives in West Africa and partnering with organizations there to boost local consumption. Lisa notes that she limits the amount of moringa she buys from any one supplier to ensure adequate domestic supply of this nutrient-packed food.

On Kuli Kuli’s mission, Lisa elaborates, “Our mission is to provide everyone with the knowledge and resources to access the nutritional power of moringa. We work closely with our partners in West Africa to ensure that all of our moringa is of the highest quality and makes a significant positive impact on the local communities.”

Coverage of the company in the San Francisco Chronicle made much of the fact that Lisa’s not donating bars to feed the hungry. Instead she’s targeting West African development by building demand for a product which the region is equipped to serve. By raising awareness about moringa and creating a market for it in the US, Lisa will be able to become a significant customer for her current suppliers—coalitions of women from Nigeria and Ghana—and enrich their communities through employment. I love the approach because it relies on market economics to create a sustainable impact, as opposed to donation-based companies like Two Degrees Food which mimics Toms by donating a meal for every bar sold.

Lisa remarks on her approach, “I worked in my village’s health center and watched USAID pull up every week with flag-stamped American corn. There’s a lot of research that has shown that food aid doesn’t help with actual agricultural development and may even be detrimental in some cases. As the adage goes ‘give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach him to fish and he’ll eat for the rest of his life.’ We want every woman in West Africa to have a Moringa oleifera tree in her yard and the knowledge to harness its nutrients.”

So what’s next for Kuli Kuli? Having secured approval from the Northern California Whole Foods region, Kuli Kuli distribution now rests on individual store stocking decisions. Lisa and her team are focused on driving grassroots demand for their product. You can order the bars via the Kuli Kuli website, try them, love them, then ask your local Whole Foods to get them on the shelves.

On next steps, Lisa adds, “We’ve had such an amazing outpouring of support over the past six months. Now we’re facing the final test: will people purchase our product? If you believe in our idea and our product, consider purchasing some Kuli Kuli bars for yourself, your friends or to make some delicious superfood stocking stuffers!”

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Stanford Food Summit 4

logoStanford hosted Food Summit 4 on October 30th with the caption of “growing pathways to careers in food systems.” Below is a quick recap of the most interesting nuggets I gleaned from the event, following four main themes.

1) Growing food locally

PlantLab: Gertjan Meeuws, Co-Founder of PlantLab, shared the rationale behind this Netherlands-based vertical farming operation. He began with the premise that, contrary to popular belief, plants don’t like nature, and that it doesn’t necessarily make the most sense to grow crops where nature is kind, and transport them to the cities in which we live. The presentation was compelling (and Gertjan’s TED talk gives a great summary). Where I am left hesitant is understanding why this model is economically feasible compared with alternatives that have been shown to cost too much (due to energy to provide artificial lighting).

LYFE Kitchen's criteria for sourcing ingredients

LYFE Kitchen’s criteria for sourcing ingredients

LYFE Kitchen: Laura Keller, my friend and former classmate shared LYFE Kitchen’s admirable sourcing guidelines (see photo), aggressive roll-out plans (~250 locations within the next five years), and how those two often come into conflict. They’re reportedly working with a vertical grower in Chicago in order to ensure a year-round supply of local produce as they expand outside California. I’m interested to watch the growth unfold! (this blog previously covered LYFE when they first opened in 2011)

2) Getting healthy food into schools

Miguel Villarreal: It’s always a treat to hear Miguel speak about the unbelievable change he’s been able to drive in the Novato Unified School District Food and Nutritional Services (FANS) program. The two victories he highlighted: 1) Removing 400 pounds of sugar per day (32 tons per year) from the schools over the past eight years and 2) Pushing forward a City of Novato ordinance that junk food trucks can’t park and market unhealthy food outside the schools. Miguel was highlighted as a Jamie Oliver Food Revolution Hero in 2011 and has worked on many other initiatives in addition to these.

Stanford Dining: I’ve long been a fan of the Stanford Dining Halls and their commitment to sustainable food purchasing. Sustainable Food Program Manager Dara Silverstein shared with the group the buying commitments Stanford Dining has committed to. It’s a pretty cool list and shows the progress they’ve made in replacing conventional sources for many ingredients (and also illustrates which operations are capable of supplying such a large-scale customer)

3) Getting people into the kitchen

Homemade: Founders Ai Chloe Chien (another GSB classmate) and Anna Rakoczy shared the early results of Homemade: the weekly cooking program they launched this summer to empower those with diet-related health needs to free themselves from “dieting” and develop healthy cooking habits for life. Both Chloe and Anna left lucrative jobs on the table (for Chloe, residency following her joint degree from Stanford Medical School and Stanford GSB, and for Anna, a career as a lawyer, and the former 2008 Australian Young Lawyer of the Year) to follow their passion for empowering healthy eating habits in others. Though only three months old, the program has had early success (“weight loos of up to 25 pounds in three months”) though by their own admission the long-term impact of diet-related weight loss matters more than short-term results. More impressive to me than the weight loss is that they’re proving that the business model works. They’ve found customers willing to pay ~$160-180 per week to participate (for 2 hours of group cooking and meals to take-home), an impressive feat on its own.

Sodium Girl: Jessica Goldman Fuong, blogger and cookbook author, was an awesome panelist with an inspiring story. Having been diagnosed with Lupus (an autoimmune disorder that affected her kidneys and brain), Jessica turned to a salt-free low-sodium diet and assembles recipes and tips via her blog and cookbook which prove that a low-sodium diet can be full of flavor. When asked for her advice on getting people into the kitchen she says she always starts with the ambience, “trick out your kitchen, make it fun, bring in color, and love to be in it.” I love this approach. Perhaps there’s room for innovation in terms of making our kitchens the best space in the house, and the healthy cooking will follow.

Jesse Cool: Restaurateur, author, teacher, and vocal sustainable food advocate, Jesse Cool also offered her advice in terms of how to get people cooking, especially kids: “build early and easy successes in the kitchen. Have kids make a baked potato, and poof! They’ve cooked! I like to teach them that you don’t have to be afraid of foods, of fats, of sugar; that it’s all okay in moderation. And to just try.”

4) Finding innovative uses for communal spaces

Off the Grid: I’d never heard founder Matt Cohen speak before and I was really engaged by his innovative approach to affecting the food system. Drawing from his experience with open food markets in Asia and Africa (and their primary role in community-building vs. secondary role in selling food), Matt took a look around San Francisco with the lens of, “what are unused communal spaces, and how can they be repurposed to create community?” Starting with the massive and often-empty parking lot in Fort Mason, Matt launched Off the Grid in the summer of 2010. Week 1 saw 300 attendees, and the count doubled every week to reach the 6-8K weekly attendees the Fort Mason event currently hosts. His advice to the audience: “look for more underutilized spaces, because there are many, and think creatively about what you can do to build community in those spaces.” If it promotes healthy, local eating and small businesses at the same time, even better.


Loving this kale salad

Thanks to Christopher Gardner, Antonella Dewell, and the speakers and panelists for putting together an awesome event! And special thanks to Stanford Dining for this beautiful, massive, dream-come-true kale salad…!


Packed auditorium for Stanford Food Summit 4

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Feeding 100 Trillion Friends: Produce or Pills?

Photo 1_microbiomeIf you’ve participated in foodie dinner table conversation in the past year, you’ve likely heard the term “microbiome” more than once.  Due in part to exceptional expository pieces such as Michael Pollan’s “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs,” the popular lexicon now includes some incredible statistics about the body’s ecosystem of 100 trillion bacteria. For instance: a count of the cells within the human form will yield a tally of nine non-human microbes for every human cell. Moreover, 99% of the total genetic information in our corpus is microbial. We’re taught to think of life as a turf war between “us” humans and “them” germs; yet, it turns out that “us” is mostly “them.”

And many of the bugs inside us – the denizens of our microbiome – are doing us quite a bit of good. In babies, Bifidobacterium Longum helps stave off pernicious bacterial infections, while Lactobacillus Johnsonii aids in the digestion of mother’s milk. In adults, Bacteroides Thetaiotamicron and Escherichia Coli (different from unsavory strains of E. Coli) are critical to digesting plants and extracting vital vitamins from our food. Moreover, our internal bacteria can even determine our susceptibility to arthritis, our predilection for metabolic disorder, whether we are fat or thin, whether we develop the type of arterial plaque that causes heart disease, and even how we think. Whoa.

Knowing this, we have begun to own up to the need for a paradigm shift concerning microorganisms. As one author puts it: “We are moving from a multi-decade focus on killing ALL bacteria via soaps, detergents, antibiotics and hand sanitizer, to a new understanding of the complex bacterial system in our bodies and in the world around us.” Famous fermenter Sandor Katz further elucidates this point in Michael Pollan’s Cooked: “’To declare war on ninety-nine percent of bacteria when less than one percent of them threaten our health makes no sense. Many of the bacteria we’re killing are our protectors.’”

So how do we best cultivate our individual microbiomes to effect benevolent health outcomes? One way to preserve your gut ecology is to avoid the haphazard consumption of antibiotics. Antibiotics are the “nuclear option” in regulating our foreign fauna: they wipe the slate clean, eliminating good bacteria along with bad. Similarly, it’s good to lay off the Purell and antibacterial soaps. But what about promoting the growth of undersized friendly germ colonies, or sowing new communities that aren’t currently present in our bodies?

Is this the domain of food, or medicine? How might we optimally shepherd the hardy, cunning, and inexhaustible soldiers of our internal infantry? If control is the most valuable currency we can amass in our daily grapple with the swirl of feral nature, then this is a major question indeed.


Photo 2_microbiomeWhat we eat for our own nourishment also happens to be the fuel for our microbiome. And the bacteria that enter our body along with our food often become a part of the microbiome. Indeed, the evolution of our internal microbe colony has historically depended heavily on the consumption of a variety of “living” foods.

Today, food safety regulations all but ensure that the living elements of our food are annihilated in the course of preparation, packaging and delivery. Much as we use the blunt instrument of antibiotics to destroy bacteria in our bodies, we use heat (Pasteurization) or high-pressure processing (HPP) “kill steps”, engender abundant acidity, thoroughly dehydrate, and seal our food in protective packaging to ensure that microorganisms are obliterated. We codified these safety procedures to ensure that we eliminate a short list of pernicious pathogens (such as e. coli, salmonella, and listeria) that sometimes exist within the large community of microorganisms that are present on raw food.

By requiring that our packaged food be heated, acidified, and desiccated, we are rendering it “dead” in every sense. Valuable enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are forever lost. And so are the myriad harmless and benevolent microorganisms that we have benignly ingested for centuries. Accordingly, processed food fails to stir up microbiome magic.

“Living Food”

Lately, there has been a resurgence of food as medicine for the microbiome. Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked, offers a robust look at a productive class of artisan fermenters that create living foods as varied as cheese, yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, prosciutto, pickles, etc. (Cooked also delves eloquently into the science of fermentation, a mind-blowing process wherein humans cultivate microorganisms that transform foods for us.) Fermented foods contain beneficial live cultures known as probiotics, while other foods contain prebiotics, the nourishing molecules that sustain probiotic organisms.

(Important side note: many mass-produced “fermented” foods are not actually fermented by living organisms. They use chemical processes to mimic the effect of microbial action. For instance, supermarket pickles are pickled by vinegar, not microbes. These non-living foods are cheaper to make and more uniform in taste. But they lack probiotic function.)

Contemporary artisan fermenters have benefited from a revolution in financing and distribution options. For instance: after reading Cooked, I wanted to eat more “living” food, so I ordered some delicious Real Family Foods sauerkraut through Good Eggs, a grocery delivery service that brings a diverse array of goods to my doorstep. A few weeks later, I received an email from peer-to-peer lending platform Kiva Zip with a request to help finance a loan to Real Family Foods. I contributed $25, and within a few days the $2,500 loan was fully funded by 41 of Real Family Foods’ customers. The loan is being used to obtain USDA Organic certification. This case study highlights how easily the modern consumer can vote with their dollars for shifts in the food landscape – without ever leaving home. I supported one of our oldest food production techniques by using some of our newest technology, all in the interest of making my buggy friends happy.

Yet, the exact relationship between which foods we eat and how those foods impact our microbiome is still somewhat murky. We know that fresh organic produce (some exemplars are onions, garlic, and leeks; and, broadly, vegetable fiber is excellent) and fermented foods work wonders. Highly processed foods are bad, as is sugar (for instance, you don’t have to refrigerate honey because bacteria cannot live in a pure sugar solution), and antibiotic-laden meats will shock your gut ecology. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. And there is real risk in consuming raw foods that may be tainted by deadly pathogens. (Note: one of the many remarkable aspects of fermentation is that the fermenting microbes create an acidic environment that is inhospitable to pathogens. Only the good guys can survive.)


Photo 3_microbiomeThe traditional role of Western medicine is to react to developed or emerging sickness. The medical establishment has been slow to develop preventative measures or guide patients on how to maintain health, particularly when it comes to food. Layer on to this that our understanding of the microbiome is rudimentary at best, and you can see why most physicians probably don’t have polished advice for their patients when asked: “So, how do I jump-start my internal ecosystem?”

Precision Therapeutics

However, many are looking to the biotech community to develop targeted therapeutics that will help the microbiome flourish. Second Genome is the early leader in this category, and has taken some $19 million in venture financing. But the leaders of Second Genome know that creating therapies for any single person will be difficult given the unique nature of each microbiome. Second Genome CEO Peter DiLaura acknowledges the need for precise therapies: “’We are really focused on the interaction between the microbiome and the host…when we think about therapeutics, it’s about impacting the interaction that is beneficial for disease.’” The company is using DNA sequencing technology to customize solutions, but the cost of doing so is onerous. Peer company Vendata Biosciences is pursuing similar solutions.

At this point, not only are such interventions too costly for mass adoption, but they generate the same slew of privacy concerns that other DNA sequencing technologies have raised. (NPR has an entertaining and illuminative story on this topic, and the accompanying cartoon video on the microbiome is definitely worth a watch.) Nonetheless, endeavors such as the American Gut Project and uBiome are nobly pressing forward to map our collective microbiome, much as the precedent Human Genome Project did in spite of concerns voiced by its detractors.

Right now, the best microbiome solution offered by medicine is inelegant, highly effective, and not for the squeamish. Fecal microbiota transplants (or fecal bacteriotherapy) are exactly what they sound like: taking stool from a person with desirable microbiomic traits and – ahem – sharing it with a person with health issues. The results of the procedure have been inarguably positive, and accordingly the FDA has green-lighted the therapy.

Food or medicine?

The “answer” lies somewhere betwixt the two domains: both food and medicine play a role. With food, cultivation of your microbiome is just the latest in an endless list of reasons to eat more fresh produce and trustworthy raw food. And integrating fermented products into your diet makes good sense: humans have been eating ferments for as long as we’ve been around. Our co-evolution with fermenting microorganisms is a clear synergistic success story.

As far as medicine goes, truly targeted microbiome treatments are not cost-competitive enough to supplant the crude fecal transplants being used today. But those transplants are saving lives in acute disease states. Their applications should be increasingly tested in preventative care.

There are also over-the-counter supplements on the market that purport to service your microbiome. Walk through your local store and you can find a multitude of probiotic pills or “probiotic-enhanced” foods. But any consumer should be seriously skeptical of supplements, and I suggest opting for real probiotic foods instead. Probiotic supplements might be appropriate after a course of antibiotics to catalyze a rebuild of your microbiome, but I suggest doing research on products before buying them.

In the meantime, stay tuned to scientific advances addressing the microbiome, and pay attention to credible literature on what probiotic and prebiotic foods are best suited to positive health outcomes. The next chapter in our long history with our tiny friends is sure to be an interesting one.

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