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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Event recap: Panel on Online Grocery Delivery – Good Eggs, LolaBee’s Harvest, Plated, Webvan, and Free Spirit Farm

2013 09 23 110Last month I worked with Local Food Lab to put together a panel focused on the online grocery delivery business model, in its various manifestations. We had the pleasure of hosting the event at the Dutch consulate’s beautiful space on the 31st floor of 120 Kearny thanks to the Netherlands Office for Science and Techology. Full recap below.


History + context

Moderator Austin Kiessig

Moderator Austin Kiessig

My partner at Edible Startups, Austin Kiessig, moderated the event. He kicked off the presentation by providing some history and context on the online grocery delivery business model: the early 2000s Webvan boom and bust, Webvan competitor PeaPod’s position as the top Google search result for “online grocery delivery” (followed by Safeway and Walmart), and the role of AmazonFresh: Amazon is currently the #1 ecommerce grocery site able to operate with the luxury of selling groceries at a loss to deepen relationships with customers (cue warning siren for competitors…). AmazonFresh expanded to LA this June and plans to roll-out to 20 additional markets in 2014.

As context for the conversation, Austin cited the 2012 Kantar Retail report entitled, The Future of Online Grocery Shopping in the US…Is Here. The report reveals the lack of online penetration in groceries compared with other categories: online sales constitute 27% of computer hardware purchases, 24% of music and videos, 10% of clothing, 7% of home furnishings, and just 1% of food, beer, and wine. Reasons shoppers cite for not buying food online are delivery fees, lack of trust in selecting fresh items, ability to explore and buy items not on the shopping list, and enjoyment of the in-store experience. Given the lack of traction thus far, the consumer biases against buying food online, and the distribution challenges of delivering fresh food among a geographically dispersed customer set, how are the new models planning to succeed?

Webvan learnings

Gary Dahl, former VP of Distribution at Webvan, sat on the panel. As context for Gary’s role, Austin quoted the Webvan Wikipedia page, “While the company was popular, the money it spent on infrastructure far exceeded sales growth, and the company eventually ran out of money.” For example: Webvan placed a $1 billion order with engineering company Bechtel to build its warehouses, then bought a fleet of delivery trucks, 30 Sun Microsystems servers, dozens of Compaq computers, several Cisco Systems routers, more than 80 21-inch ViewSonic color monitors, and at least 115 Herman Miller Aeron chairs at over $800 each. Gary represented his former employer candidly and with a good sense of humor. When each panelist was asked to characterize their company as a food company, a logistics company, or a technology company, Gary responded, “#4 – bankrupt.” Although he did contest the ridicule of their Aeron chair spend – “great engineers at that time wouldn’t sit in anything but them…”

When asked what’s changed between 2001 and today to make online groceries more feasible, the answer was that Webvan was ahead of its time, and certainly ahead of consumer willingness to buy food online. Of course in hindsight it’s easy to point out mistakes that were made. TechCrunch, courtesy of the former founding head of technology at Webvan, recently covered the online grocery space and cited three lessons learned by the demise of Webvan:

  1. Targeting price sensitive customers with what should’ve been an upscale offering
  2. Investing in complex, customized, and costly infrastructure
  3. Succumbing to pressure to get big too fast

Online farmers’ markets (Good Eggs and Lolabee’s Harvest)

The “online farmers’ market” model offers customers the ability to buy groceries online from a disparate community of producers which are coordinated via a third party and delivered weekly to doorsteps. I covered LolaBee’s earlier this year and remain very much a fan of their offering. They expanded delivery to the East Bay this June and are continuing to invest in growing the business.

Toby Hastings, Free Spirit Farm

Toby Hastings, Free Spirit Farm

To highlight the perspective of the food producer on this model, Toby Hastings, founder of Free Spirit Farm, joined the panel. Toby runs a seven acre farm in Winters, CA producing fruits, vegetables, and eggs. He sells his produce via Lolabee’s, as well as directly to Bay Area restaurants. He shared the challenges for a farmer in marketing products, specifically for low batch, seasonal crops that are not dependably available week-to-week. The online platform lets him market exactly what he has in stock each week. Toby is making a name for himself in the farming world, having been named in Zagat’s SF Food World Up-and-Comers top 30 under 30. He also was the only panelist representing a venture that’s currently profitable (and has been profitable every year since inception). Who would’ve thought that the farmer would win that honor?

Good Eggs, another Bay Area-grown online farmers’ market, is also growing aggressively, currently piloting their model in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, and New Orleans. Rahmin shared that the New Orleans pilot has met with early success especially due to the strong local sense of community around food. Rahmin echoed the role this model can play in supporting and enabling local food producers. For example, Josey Baker is an SF producer that began selling 100% via Good Eggs which allowed him to expand. Good Eggs isn’t yet profitable but plans to have the SF market reach profitability within six months.

Recipe delivery boxes (Plated)

Plated is one of a number of recent food startups delivering ready-to-cook ingredients and recipes directly to your door (others include Blue Apron and PlateJoy). Plated began on the east coast but launched in San Francisco this September and has done a great job getting their brand out there. Seriously, I see their materials everywhere from my office to a private cooking lesson I did in a chef’s home with some colleagues a few weeks ago (by the way, highly recommend Chef James…). I tried out Plated a few weeks ago, and although I was skeptical of the $15 per serving price point, I was blown away by the quality of produce included in the order. Glenn from our panel is the man in charge of sourcing high quality ingredients around the Bay Area and it seems like he’s doing well so far.

Wooing the fickle online grocery shopper

Coming full circle, the main challenge faced by online grocery startups is the lack of current penetration today. These companies will have to continue converting and wooing brick-and-mortar food shoppers. How will they do that? When asked by the moderator what is the most surprising thing they’ve learned about online grocery shopping behavior, the panelists’ answers provide some insight:

  • Lauren, LolaBee’s: There is often no discernible rhyme or reason to the orders her customers place. She frequently cannot imagine a meal coming together from the collection of groceries. She believes there’s lots of room out there to guide customers into crafting meals while they shop online. That’s certainly an advantage of online shopping: the ability to search recipes online while making your selections. A lot easier than scanning through pinterest pins in the produce aisle… (PlateJoy helps meet this need with meal-planning services, as does Design My Meals, which auto-loads your CSA box inventory into your virtual pantry to pull recipes based on what’s in your kitchen)
  • Toby, Free Spirit Farm: Customers don’t like branching out and trying new things. They’ll choose an apple over a quince very day. But it’s easier to get people to try new things online versus in the store; it’s less intimidating. You don’t have to know how to pick out a ripe piece, you don’t have to make the decision on the spot, with others shoving around you. Featuring new products online helps customers experiment (especially when paired with a recipe guiding them on how to use the new ingredient.
  • Gary, Webvan: Gary’s most surprising observation from customer shopping behavior is that most people start to think about dinner at ~4pm. In the online world it’s really hard to deliver on that. Plated requires orders by Monday at noon for a Tuesday delivery, which seems like an impressive turnaround to me. But you’re out of luck if you want to go online at 4pm and get groceries delivered that night.

Thanks again to NOST for the amazing venue. The Netherlands Offices for Science & Technology links local science, technology trends, and R&D (in agriculture and food, among other areas) to their counterparts in the Netherlands. Check out NOST’s recap of this panel on their blog as well.

Also thank you to our food sponsors for the evening: Kama Food Lab and Rip van Wafels!

Panelists from left to right: Glenn, Lauren, Rahmin, Gary, and Toby

Panelists from left to right: Glenn, Lauren, Rahmin, Gary, and Toby

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What “Big Ideas” In Food Get Funded In Silicon Valley?

Much has been written about the ascent of Silicon Valley (SV) as the go-to global incubator for transformational change.  SV has become the Jerusalem of the techno-optimist religion. In venture capital doctrine, the absolution of humanity’s sins begins with seed financing for the next spate of Big Ideas. And in an America where the federal government no longer functions (quite literally), Silicon Valley has taken on new gravity. It is ground zero for ingenuity as cathartic salvation.

The unsustainability of the modern food system is one of humanity’s biggest problems. So, it’s worth taking a look at which Big Ideas in food the leading SV venture capital firms (VCs) are voting for. Where are VCs placing their bets for the salvation of food? (Note: this piece will focus on venture capital financing, but not crowd-funding, angel financing, or later-stage private equity financing, all of which also play an important role in advancing Big Ideas in food.) SV’s rising focus on food has already received attention from the mainstream press.

Before diving in, it’s important to bear in mind a few truths about the VC business model. To have a chance of being funded by a VC, a company must “walk and talk” like a high-growth technology firm. VCs look for: a) billion-dollar marketplaces; b) game-changing innovations; c) short innovation cycles that can quickly lead to high-margin revenue; and d) a promising path to “liquidity” (meaning the sale of the VC firm’s equity shares in the company). One problem cited by food entrepreneurs is that food businesses often don’t fit this profile. So as you peruse the ideas below, it’s also important to consider what’s not being financed. But, more on that later.

Agriculture Inputs: Information, Resource Management, Seeds

VCs love agriculture input innovations. Why? Inputs undergird all of food production, and thus represent massive marketplaces. Plus, VCs understand the imminent scarcity of inputs such as water and petroleum-derived fertilizer. If technology can reduce or supplant the need for threatened resources, it can probably be monetized. (However, because such technologies often hinge on bets about unforeseeable commodity price trends and/or government distortion of markets, they bear resemblance to some of the “cleantech” investments that burned VC firms in recent years.)

VC graphic 1

A good place to start is with the recent sale of The Climate Corporation (CC) to Monsanto for over $1 billion. Having liquidated for about ten times the $109 million in venture funding the company has received since 2007, CC is rightly hailed as a successful venture investment, and was backed by big-name firms such as Founders FundKhosla Ventures, Google VenturesNEAIndex Ventures and Atomico. CC is a “Big Data” company that processes historical and real-time weather data with predictive algorithms, and then intelligently prices crop insurance and weather informatics for farmers. CC produces something that tech-oriented VCs can understand, and they’ve cracked into the multi-billion dollar insurance and business intelligence marketplaces. While we may not think about risk management and production intelligence as agriculture inputs, farmers certainly do! CC is an important case study because it shows VCs that they can make money playing in agriculture.

Another interesting information-seller is Solum, which produces soil sensors and an accompanying analytical platform aimed at reducing fertilizer inputs. The company provides farmers with detailed knowledge on the health of their soil to enable precise decisions on how much additional application is needed to maximize crop yields.

VCs have also focused on companies trying to reduce water use. The Roda Group financed mOasis, a company developing a polymer gel that retains soil moisture and reduces watering intensity in arid climates. Both Banyan Water and PureSense offer technology platforms to economize water application on irrigated landscapes. And Khosla Ventures backed NanoH2O, a membrane technology company that lowers the cost of desalination (and brings farmers one step closer to using abundant salty water for their fields).

Seeds are an additional big focus of VC firms. Kleiner Perkins has two non-GMO seed companies in its portfolio: Kaiima and VoloAgri. Both are trying to coax better productivity out of crop lines without directly altering genetics, a la Monsanto.

Note that what all these companies are really selling are data-derived intelligence or intellectual property that could shift entire marketplaces. They are high-risk, but potentially high-return, with global applicability.

Ag Production & Food Processing: More Efficient Protein, Process Automation

Another concept that VCs love is substitutes for conventionally produced animal protein. If you know anything about how resource-intensive it is to raise a cow, you realize it’s probably possible to produce protein far more efficiently. Furthermore, the market for proteins is large and growing as more middle-class consumers come online worldwide.

VC graphic 2

The animal protein alternatives market is currently dominated by next-generation plant-protein synthetics that closely mimic real meat. The most “buzzy” among them is Beyond Meat, which leads a class of startups investing heavily in food science and processing technique to bring the flavor, texture, and visceral eating experience of their substitutes as near as possible to “the real thing.” The promise for VCs is that these companies will make delicious products with a much lower production cost, thereby carving out a large fraction of the global market by virtue of a favorable price point. Also in this vein is Hampton Creek, an egg substitute with exceptionally promising early market traction, and Lyrical Foods, which is going after cheese.

Further down the pike are companies attempting to grow real animal cell cultures (and ultimately complex animal tissue compounds) in a lab. Rather than originating from a cow in a field, your hamburger would come from “in vitro cultivation” in an industrial incubator. Again, the investment promise of companies such as Modern Meadow is that they will someday streamline production and drop costs – although today, a single “cultured” burger costs $325,000.

(Keep an eye on one more animal protein substitute: farmed insects. While I am not aware of any insect companies currently being financed by institutional VCs, they are thriving on crowd-funding sites such as Kickstarter.com.)

Another well-attended class of ventures is those that are automating processes in the semi-structured environment of food production. For example, Blue River Technology is using computer vision technology to automate in-field weeding and plant selection processes, which have historically relied on manual labor or excessive application of chemicals. Primary backer Khosla Ventures envisions a future where autonomous robotic vehicles diligently roam every agriculture plot around the world. A similar company is Rowbot, which is focused on fertilizer application.

And not far off will be a series of investments in flying drone vehicles used in food production. I don’t know what these will look like, but some have ventured a guess.

Storage, Distribution, and Consumption: Supply Chain Traceability, Numerous Consumer Applications

VC graphic 3

Information is of paramount importance in distribution. Since supply chain traceability is of interest for food safety, cost control, and consumer education purposes, VCs have bolstered technology company HarvestMark, which can help track fresh food items down to the package level.

Further along the supply chain is the intersection of food and consumer purchases. Because “consumer Internet” (the intersection of internet technology and the traditional consumption of goods and services, the latter of which composes over 70% of U.S. GDP) has been such a massive area of investment for VCs, the ecosystem of ventures that allow people to seek out, buy, and consume food is extremely robust. Instead of trying to catalogue notable investments in this space, I will refer readers to Brita Rosenheim’s exhaustive map of “Food Tech and Media” companies. For ongoing coverage, Food and Tech Connect monitors this space very well.

What’s Being Left Out?

Anything that is regionally oriented, serves a small market, or fails to provide an “exit opportunity” for VC investors is unlikely to be funded. The reason such investments are left out is because the business of venture capital is to make money, and do so relatively quickly. VCs raise investment funds from limited partners (smaller investors), and promise to “close” a pool of funds and deliver returns within five to seven years. What that means is that even a company that receives investment early in the five-to-seven year life of a fund doesn’t have a tremendously long time to grow and go public, be bought by a competitor, sell to a private equity firm, or otherwise recapitalize to “liquidate” equity shares. If the “exit opportunity” never manifests, the VCs can’t make money, and they won’t make the investment in the first place.

Contrast the five-to-seven year exit timeline with the life cycle of most agriculture and food businesses. Pistachio trees take seven years to mature after planting. Converting land from conventional to certified organic takes at least two years (and probably closer to four in practice). Building sales and distribution in a physical sales network takes much longer than in an e-commerce network. VCs simply aren’t willing to wait for many food businesses to generate a competitive return on their investments.

And, even if VCs waited, a competitive return may never appear. Most parts of the food value chain generate modest profit margins. Contrast the 15% operating margin of Kraft Foods (a mature and profitable food company) to the 34% operating margin of Microsoft (a mature and profitable software company). For a VC chasing “superior” returns, the profit profile of a business matters a lot.

So what “progressive food” business models are unlikely to be courted by VCs? Big Ideas that are a bit ahead of their time (such as vertical farming); “low-tech” agriculture production technologies; local foodshed farming operations; regional food processors or distributors; artisanal “mom and pop” food manufacturers; most restaurant chains; retailers targeting “food deserts”; niche cooking or nutrition education platforms; and most publications or blogs. VC is not interested in Slow Food or Slow Money. And it’s important to recognize that many of the changes needed in the food system simply don’t fit in the “techno-optimist” paradigm. For those changes, alternative investment channels are springing up, but may never develop at all. Future posts will address complementary avenues of investment in other parts of the food system.

In the meantime, cutting-edge food start-up incubators such as Local Food Lab and Accel Foods, and investment enablers such as CircleUp, are trying to close the broad gap between new food businesses and institutional VC financing. As more Big Ideas (and laudable Small and Medium Ideas) in food continue to emerge, stay tuned to the evolving infrastructure of support for food companies.

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Rip van Wafels: SF-based startup brings a new coffee routine to American consumers

logoRip van Wafels unveiled a brand-new website this month (featuring awesome infographics) detailing the unique, ritual consumption of its product. Beyond creating a deliciously authentic Dutch-inspired stroopwafel (two thin layers of wafel surrounding a caramel filling), is determined to redefine the American coffee break. Founder Abhishek “Rip” Pruisken describes how placing their wafel over your coffee can enrich your entire day:

btyStroopwafel460x320“We believe that a short break goes a long way. It’s important to unplug and relax from time to time to put things into perspective. A Rip van Wafels with coffee allows you to do just that. So we are not just selling a product, we aim to improve people’s lifestyles as a whole via their coffee breaks.

Americans are willing to wait in line for 20min get a quality cup of coffee. We believe they are also willing to wait 2 min for their coffee to cool down. While it cools, the steam will heat the filling and infuse the aroma of the coffee in the wafel. The ritual makes coffee a more engaging experience.

Our product is also healthier than the baked goods in coffee shops, with only 150 calories and 8g of sugar you can indulge responsibly.”

I’m pretty sure this ritual needs a name (Strooping? Wafeling? Or, probably my favorite Dutch word ever, swaffelen? Yes, there is a word for that…) but I’ll leave that question to the experts…

I love the website’s timeline of the founding of the company. It’s a pretty cool story (go Brown! I’m feeling lots of alma mater pride) and encapsulates the playful brand voice. It also does much of my job for me in summarizing how Rip (and co-founder Marco) built this company from the ground-up:

  • 2006: Where are the wafels? Amsterdam native Rip Pruisken arrives at Brown University. Rip heads to the dining hall for koffietijd—a mid morning coffee break enjoyed with a warm wafel. Finding decent coffee but no wafels, Rip is horrified to learn that most America is without his favorite snack.
  • 2009: Starting out of a dorm room? Three years and 1,625 wafel-less koffietijds later, Rip’s had enough. He buys a waffle iron and begins pressing the first batch of homemade stroopwafels in his dorm. His cookies are inedible. Undeterred, he tries again…and again.
  • 2009: Visiting Wafel Factories in Holland? Rip visits Holland to learn from the wafel masters.
  • 2010: First Sale on the Main Green. Rip sets up shop on the campus Main Green and slings handmade wafels to kids on their way to class. One strange day in late April, hundreds of confused-looking students pour onto the quad clamoring for a bite. He can’t keep up with demand.
  • Etc…
Founder Rip Pruisken

Founder Rip Pruisken

From there, Rip raised preliminary funds from a kickstarter campaign in the summer of 2010, recruited a co-founder (Marco De Leon), joined and won the Brown Entrepreneurship Program startup competition, traveled around the country promoting the product, and relocated to San Francisco. They’ve proven so popular here that Rip van Wafels has just recently moved into a brand new office!

Rip’s not the only one to have identified and attempted to remedy our country’s lack of stroopwafels (and our ever-busy, Starbucks to-go excuse of a coffee break…). However he’s the only one approaching the market via the coffee shop scene (e.g., Honey Stinger makes a stroopwafel aimed at the cyclist market, though I’m not sure I really see the product-market-fit there…). Although Rip van Wafels has a strong presence in Bay Area coffee shops, there’s a ton of opportunity for growth: both geographic as well as product line. On what’s next for the company, Rip shares,

“Specialty coffee and tea varieties differ in flavor profiles. We will be developing new Wafel flavor varieties to compliment the flavor profiles of these hot beverages.”

Rip is leading the company in its fundraising efforts (which, as of last Monday is officially legal to share publicly via the JOBS act) and, although they’ve gotten a majority of their commitments for funding in place, they’re happy to meet with investors who are passionate about coffee, consumer products, and/or food. You can reach out to Rip directly via email.

If you’re in the Bay Area, here’s a list of coffee shops where Rip van Wafels are sold. If you’re not in the area, you can order the product online. Or, even better, let your local cafe know that they’re missing out on providing the ultimate coffee break experience.

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Careers In Food System Change: Where Should You Start?

By Austin Kiessig

I have had many career path conversations with people who are fired up about changing the food system. These conversations are often tricky. The food landscape is complex, and there are many different ways to plug into the ecosystem of affiliated industries we collectively call “food.” Navigating that ecosystem can be overwhelming.

In my opinion, the easiest way to make sense of the job landscape is to apply filters. Perhaps the most potent filter is passion. I believe people do their best work (particularly if it’s entrepreneurial) when they are in tune with their unique zealousness. Finding it takes some self-reflection. Career-seekers need to begin with the question: What about food fixates you? Then, they can dig into specific opportunities.

I want to introduce a framework for mapping passions for food system change against the “value chain” in food production. We’ll call it the “Food Change Career Matrix.”

Let me note before starting: the matrix outlines a way to think about driving change in the food system. It assumes you think something is wrong in the system and you want to work on changing it. So this is a way to structure a conversation about how people and organizations are (or are not) driving change today.

The Food Change Career Matrix


Dimension 1: Whom Do You Want To Impact?

Dimension 1 was inspired by my realization that food stretches across every level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Food is simultaneously a basic physiological necessity, an element of safety and security, an expression of love and belonging, an instrument of esteem and respect, and a sophisticated symbol of self-actualization. And I think one can rightly discern a person’s priorities by understanding where they fall on Maslow’s Hierarchy. As go the priorities of the people, so go the priorities of the food system (and the broader economic system). I find that most people tend to have a visceral connection with driving change at one (or a few) levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve reduced Maslow’s Hierarchy from five levels to three.

The priorities for a local, regional, or national food system depend greatly on the economic status of the people served by that food system. Let me illustrate through a set of examples:

a)   People in the global “impoverished class” tend to worry about caloric security. Much of their daily energy is directed towards fulfilling basic needs: are they physically safe? Do they have clean water to drink? Do they have enough food to avoid starvation and malnutrition? In short, their next meal is not guaranteed, and the food system is oriented to provide as many calories as possible as cheaply as possible.

b)   People in the global “middle class” tend to be preoccupied by the integrity of their food. Finding enough calories to survive is not the most pressing issue; rather, people with disposable income now have choices over how to fulfill their caloric needs. The issues of wellness and status emerge: food is both a source of nourishment and a symbol of “doing well.” A bell curve emerges in weight: some people under-eat, and some people over-eat. The role of the food system shifts from producing enough calories to serving a mix of nutritional demands from consumers.

c)   People in the global “upper class” tend to treat food as symbolic, instrumental, and part of lifestyles and contexts. Caloric security is moot, and food consumption becomes a reflection of sophisticated individual preferences and social behavior patterns. Restaurants, retailers, brands, and novelty matter. In a vast sea of purchase options, consumers use their money to vote for particular food systems, forms of nutritional richness, or their unique social station. The role of the food system is to provide many options across a wide spectrum of preferences.

Different people are passionate about driving food system change at different levels of economic development, and none is “better” or more worthwhile than another. Someone may see value in helping feed the poor, for instance, but they may see more value in developing sophisticated food systems in “upper class” societies that can then be replicated across less-developed economies. Indeed, many disruptive technologies and systems originate as experiments in wealthy economies.

Dimension 2: Where In The Food Value Chain Do You Want To Work?

When we picture food production, there are different stages along the path from field to fork. Segmenting the stages and studying what occurs in each is another effective filter in understanding where change can occur.

a)    Agriculture inputs: soil, water, seeds, fertilizers. Resource development and management.

b)   Agriculture production: farming, tools and technologies used in growing, agricultural systems.

c)    Food processing: converting food from a raw state to a consumable state, and creating a brand identity.

d)   Storage & distribution: getting food to market. Includes commodities.

e)    Consumption–retail: points of sale where people buy groceries and bulk foodstuffs.

f)     Consumption–restaurants: points of sale where people buy prepared food in a social setting.

g)    Consumption–cooking/other: points of consumption where people eat at home or in other settings.

I think there are also career options outside the strictly defined food production “value chain”:

h)   Food education: nutrition, general health and wellness, food policy, food systems.

i)    Investing: providing capital to food-related entities.

Examples: The Matrix In Action

Food Careers image 09.24.2013

A career-seeker might start by considering the personal resonance of each dimension, and then do research on which companies fit into applicable parts of the matrix. Some illustrative examples are below:

  • Food safety + Agricultural production: Kickstart International manufactures hand-operated water pumps for farmers in developing economies. These pumps obviate the need to carry buckets of water to the field by hand. They also displace the use of pumps powered by diesel generators, which are both expensive and environmentally unfriendly.
  • Food integrity + Food processing: Stonyfield Organic introduced tasty, affordable, organic yogurt to the mainstream marketplace. Stonyfield was one of the first organic food products to be carried by WalMart, which had a resonant impact throughout the entire dairy industry.
  • Food culture + Storage & distribution: Farmigo is a software company that connects farmers to consumers. Shoppers can use Farmigo software to order a basket of customized of high-value goods from local area growers and artisanal food producers. Products are delivered to shoppers’ doors or to a centralized pickup location.

A Valuable Starting Point

The matrix can help people dig into what they feel most strongly about changing in food, and where they might apply their unique backgrounds, talents, and passions. It’s a way to structure thinking and conversations.

I welcome your feedback on this tool and any suggestions for improving it.

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Event recap: San Franola Summer Food Summit

San Franola co-founder Matt Teichmann kicks off the summit

San Franola co-founder Matt Teichmann kicks off the summit

This is a shamefully late post but better late than never. I wanted to share some musings from an event last month: San Franola Granola, a local freshly-roasted granola producer, hosts quarterly food summits with the goal to “bring together some of the best minds in the space and have a productive conversation about the future of food and what that means for us all” (from the San Franola recap of the event). Sounds like pretty good mission to me!

The summer summit (held at Sourcery’s soma offices) featured speakers Katie Fitzgerald, business development associate at CircleUp, and Nate Miyaki, fitness author and coach. The speakers addressed pretty distinct topics so I’ll cover them individually.

Katie Fitzgerald, CircleUp

Katie Fitzgerald, Senior Associate, Business Development, CircleUp

Katie Fitzgerald, Senior Associate, Business Development, CircleUp

CircleUp is a crowdfunding platform enabling accredited investors to identify and invest in mid-sized consumer and retail businesses. It’s gotten a lot of press over the past six months (WSJ, PandoDaily, VentureBeat) and fills a previously-unoccupied niche in the funding ecosystem, enabling funding for companies that are too small for private equity dollars and too limited in terms of growth potential for venture capital.

Katie shared that, to date, CircleUp has facilitated the funding of 18 companies with a total of $18M. However it’s not easy to get onto CircleUp (and they’re clearly attracting a lot of attention): only 2-3% of companies which apply make it onto the platform. Katie didn’t share how many companies are eliminated because they don’t meet the size requirements (CircleUp focuses on companies with $500K-$1M in annual revenue) or because their business model or product falls short (more here on how CircleUp informs its decisions). She did share that, more recently, CircleUp is open to working with companies under this revenue threshold provided the team has a strong entrepreneurial track record (and even better if they bring some of their own investors to the table).

Rip Pruisken, founder of Rip van Wafels, enjoys the speakers

Rip Pruisken, founder of Rip van Wafels, enjoys the speakers

One question Katie got (which I’m sure they often get) is, “where do you send companies that don’t make it onto the platform?” Katie had a few suggestions: small business loans, friends and family, and kickstarter. Although CircleUp is filling a niche for a select small group of consumer products companies, the majority of food startups face the same funding options they always have, with the exception of kickstarter. Katie was quick to disclaim that “it’s hard to convince consumers to pay upfront for a granola bar.” I guess that’s true, unless you’re Exo and you have the insect hook – in that case it seems you can do pretty well on kickstarter

Companies CircleUp has worked with/are working with in the food space include:

Nate Miyaki, fitness coach

Nate Miyaki

Nate Miyaki

Nate is a former professional wrestler, a bodybuilder, an author, a fitness coach, and a nutritionist. His website offers his training and nutrition tips and sells his books.

The gist of his message, which I couldn’t agree with more, is that there’s a preponderance of confusing, misleading, and, in many cases, conflicting messages about what we’re supposed to eat. Nutrition standards are set by lobbyists and influenced by big food companies: the ADA (recently renamed to be the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) is the largest US organization of food and nutrition professionals and has a significant voice in shaping the national discourse around nutrition. It also boasts corporate partners and sponsors including Kellogg, Mars, ConAgra, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and General Mills. One of my favorite illustrations of how misleading nutrition studies can be is detailed in the Columbia Journalism Review piece, “Survival of the Wrongest.” Seriously, it’s a fascinating read.

So what to do in a world of mixed messages about what comprises a healthy diet? From Nate’s experience, there’s not a “one-size fits all” answer. For people who are more sedentary (exercise ❤ days a week), he is a strong advocate of the paleo diet: Hunter-gatherer-inspired with fish, meat, vegetables and fruits but no grains, dairy or refined sugar. However for more active people, especially cross-fitters engaging in substantial anaerobic activity, he’s seen disastrous results from the paelo diet including a lack of energy, a lack of libido, and the confusing “skinny-fat” syndrome. For people engaging in serious exercise Nate recommends more carbohydrates (root vegetables, tubers, rice) to fuel demanding exercise. Read all about his nutrition guidelines on his website.

Thanks San Franola for getting a great group together for beers and discourse! The next summit will be held on Wednesday, November 13th from 6-9pm at the Four Seasons SF. Email food@sanfranolaco.com to get on the list.

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The burger will cost you a buck. But the bad ideas are free!

By Austin Kiessig

Amidst the preening flock of sanctimonious food-related articles that flit across our social media newsfeeds or strut into our inboxes each month, there is occasionally a dark horse.  Dark horse pieces in contemporary food writing stand out not because they proclaim that the current industrial food system is broken.  Even ardent critics of the food reform movement know deep down that our calorie production infrastructure is untenable and bloated with hidden costs.  No, the dark horse compositions take a bolder stance: they unabashedly lionize the crown jewels of our fast food imperium.  Typically, dark horse authors view themselves as martyrs for the lower classes, standing bravely athwart a runaway torrent of invectives penned by “out of touch” (and probably smelly) vegans, or sneering nanny-state propagandists who want to raise the cost of living for our neediest citizens.

And good for those contrarian writers. A balanced dialogue makes for a healthy social conversation. But Kyle Smith’s recent dark horse piece in the New York Post, “The Greatest Food In Human History,” is little more than a litany of borrowed, scattered, and weak assertions amassed in slapdash fashion under the NYP’s bright red Look At Me! banner. During a casual read, Smith seemingly commands the reader’s fidelity to the argument that poor people need low-cost food and that the obvious leading option for them is “the greatest food in human history” (TGFIHH): the McDonalds McDouble cheeseburger.  The TGFIHH term is Smith’s, but he derives it from a blog post belonging to “Freakonomics” author Stephen Dubner, in which a reader named Ralph writes to Dubner claiming that the McDouble is “the cheapest, most nutritious and bountiful food that has ever existed in human history.”

One should begin by recognizing the voice behind the piece’s core argument.  The voice does not belong to Kyle Smith (whose primary role at the Post is as one of four film critics), nor to Stephen Dubner (a fine writer but a self-described “personality” with provocative views), but to Ralph. Who’s Ralph? A guy. We don’t know. But Smith is happy to mention Dubner and (John Bates Clark Medal-winning economist) Steven D. Levitt by name, even though Levitt is not tied to the blog post in any way.

Smith and Dubner hold aloft the following statistics about the McDouble: it has “390 calories, 23g (half a daily serving) of protein, plus 7% of daily fiber, 20% of daily calcium and so on. Also, you can get it in 14,000 locations in the US and it usually costs $1.”  It is, in Smith’s words, an “unsung wonder of modern life.” Ok, Kyle. Ready for this? I agree! It’s a “wonder.” That’s a lot of stuff for $1 out of my wallet. But is it TGFIHH? Big question. And I was sort-of kind-of understanding the logic until I re-read the subtitle of the article: “In terms of cost per calorie, no locavore, organic veggie can compete with the McDouble.” 

Willful Confusion

When you get the game wrong, you crown the wrong champions.  Smith starts clearly: we’re talking about cost per calorie. But then he starts cavalierly offering other arguments. The McDouble is not only cheap, but it’s “nutritious” and “bountiful”. Bountiful, maybe. Keep in mind that Dubner’s blog post is titled “The Most Bountiful Food In Human History,” not “The Greatest Food In Human History.” But “cheap” and “nutritious”?


Addendum to the original post (added 8/14/13): It’s been brought to my attention that $1 menu items at major fast food chains, particularly the burgers, are “loss leaders” for those chains. Meaning, they lose money on each unit sold. Why would they sell items at a loss? Because few customers buy only a $1 burger. They also buy high-profit items like soda, which net the fast food chains 90% profit margins. That fact is critical to this cost debate: there is no such thing as a $1 burger. Even McDonald’s is McSubsidizing the consumer to artificially lower the direct cost of the burger. Food system cost distortions abound, even where you least expect them. And it’s critical to keep this in mind as you consider the true cost of a McDouble.

It’s on the cost dimension that Smith really goes bananas.  “Produce may seem cheap to environmentally aware blond moms who spend $300 on their highlights every month, but if the object is to fill your belly, it is hugely expensive per calorie…Junk food costs as little as $1.76 per 1,000 calories, whereas fresh veggies and the like cost more than 10 times as much…A 2,000-calorie day of meals would, if you stuck strictly to the good-for-you stuff, cost $36.32.”

I’ve already submitted in previous writing that I’m well aware that eating fresh, high-quality produce is expensive and doesn’t necessarily appeal to many American palates. But Smith paints this as an “either/or” proposition where (A) fast food is cheap and (B) fresh produce is prohibitively expensive.  Here’s why this “fill your belly” argument is simple and dangerous:

  •     Is the object in America to fill our bellies? FeedingAmerica.org does not even offer figures on how many people in the U.S. are starving or chronically hungry—meaning, at a true calorie deficit. Instead, they use the term food insecurity, defined as when someone does “not always know where they will find their next meal.” FeedingAmerica asserts that one in five children are food insecure, and are unable to “consistently access nutritious and adequate amounts of food.” Note that “nutritious” is first in line, ahead of “adequate amounts.” So why isn’t FeedingAmerica offering stats on how many young Americans are starving? My hypothesis is that starvation (albeit a real problem) is a much smaller issue in contemporary America than lack of nutrition. It is hard to argue that our most pressing issue is “to fill our bellies” when:

In sum total, our bellies are not full. They are overfull. The majority of Americans are not ravenous when they go to bed. They are bloated. We need to ask not whether we can fill our bellies, but with what, and for how much. Which leads me to:

  • Fast food is not all that cheap! Sure, there are cost advantages that McDonald’s passes on to consumers thanks to operational scale and efficiencies. Your local farmer’s market doesn’t offer those same competitive advantages. But as a good student of economics, I must continue to flog this point: externalities matter. You pay far more than $1 for a McDouble. How? You pay through your taxes (inefficiently, mind you) for the government subsidies that make corn, soy, and wheat cheap, and thus make the meat from cows that eat those crops cheap. You pay for the massive environmental degradation that concentrated animal feeding operations levy on each ecosystem they operate in. You pay for the strain on resources that burger ingredients impose: think of all the water, energy, and other inputs that go into a burger but aren’t reflected in the price (for example, water prices are blunted by politics but water scarcity is a huge and growing problem; energy prices are blunted by politics but energy production is laden with externalities, such as atmospheric carbon and geopolitical turmoil; etc.). You pay for the ballooning public and personal health costs caused by avoidable chronic disease (because, let’s face it, we’re likely eating that McDouble with fries and a soda). On the last point, America has the highest health care cost burden of any country in history. Think that might be related to our cheap food?
  • Finally, produce and “healthy eating” do not have to be ruinously expensive. Fresh, organic produce is certainly costly. But many frozen or canned fruits and vegetables are not that costly, nor are many fresh selections. There exists a broad spectrum of options between 2,000 calories of McDoubles at $5.12 (direct cost; the fully loaded cost with externalities is substantially higher) and 2,000 calories of produce at $36.32. There is real choice. And we can afford to pay more than 6% of our household income if doing so offsets real economic externalities that we pay for anyways! A penny spent wisely is a penny saved somewhere else, particularly when it comes to our health.


Even Dubner asks on his blog, “if you attack on the ‘nutritious’ dimension (I suspect you will), be very specific.” Let’s do it. We’ll go macronutrient-by-macronutrient through fat, carbs, and protein, and of course let’s talk about micronutrients as well.

The McDouble has 19 grams of fat, which accounts for roughly 170 of the 390 calories, or 44%. That means almost half of those cheap calories are fat. Fat can be OK, but the 8 grams of saturated fat are bad for you. By eating a McDouble, you’ve exceeded one-third of the government-recommended daily limit of saturated fat via one-fifth of your government-recommended daily calories. And the bulk of those grams are from the meat and cheese, which, taken together, are nearly devoid of any meaningful micronutrient benefit (particularly on a per-calorie basis): no fiber, 4% of daily vitamin A, no vitamin C, 8% of daily iron, and 8% of daily calcium.

The 33 grams of carbs equate to roughly 132 calories, or another 34% of the total calorie count.  28 grams of those calories come from the bleached wheat flour bun, whose third-most-voluminous ingredient (after flour and water) is high fructose corn syrup. From this bun you get 5% of daily fiber, no vitamins A or C, 10% of daily calcium, and 10% of daily iron ensconced in simple carbs that are fast-metabolizing and obesogenic. Not a great tradeoff there.

Finally, you get the 23 grams of protein at roughly 92 calories. Arguably, this macronutrient is the best “bang for your buck”. The government recommends that an adult eat about double this amount per day. But remember that this is beef and cheese, so that protein is bound up with a considerable amount of fat.

To put this all in context, let’s compare what you get above to a serving of frozen spinach. 45 calories of spinach provides 366% of daily vitamin A, 20% of daily calcium, 14% of vitamin C, 16% of iron, and 18% of daily fiber. This comes with 1 gram of fat, 6 grams of protein, and 7 total carbohydrates.

Nutrition table

Note: the cost of 5.5 ounces of frozen spinach was derived from the per-ounce price ($0.14) of frozen spinach on Safeway.com.

So if we’re trying to award the mantle of “most nutritious,” it’s not much of a contest. The table below highlights the difference: except on total calories and protein, spinach is cheaper than the McDouble (and that’s without factoring in the agriculture subsidies and other economic externalities that favor the McDouble). And spinach has less fat and fewer simple carbohydrates than the McDouble, so it wins on those fronts too. If your aim is to simply “fill your belly,” then the McDouble wins. But if you care about what you’re putting in your body, spinach is a very economical champion.

Equivalency Cost table

Keep in mind again that we talk about the lack of “nutritious” foods available to the food insecure before we talk about “inadequate amounts” of foods available to the food insecure. In America, lack of nutrition means lack of vital micronutrients more than lack of vital macronutrients. Let’s face it: fat and carbohydrates are cheap.

And although protein is not far behind fat and carbs on a cost basis, it may be the exception here: protein is clearly the best thing going for the McDouble. Protein is indeed important to development and health, but there are innumerable sources of protein that are reasonably priced (the reviled “McBoiled Lentils” that Smith casually dismisses; or soy; or chicken; or fish) and, unlike beef, don’t have the same amount of fat bundled up with each gram of protein. And I have to emphasize yet again: our beef ain’t all that cheap when you tally up the externalities.

So the “nutritious” argument may be somewhat relative, particularly when you map nutrition against cost, which forces subjective prioritization. What is “nutritious” depends on your personal goals. Want to bulk up with a side of heart disease, but get your protein on the cheap? Spend on the McDouble. Want an “unsung wonder” of multitudinous micronutrients critical to your health? Buy the spinach. What do your intuition and your brain tell you is the “greater” food for you?

Nobody – probably not even Smith – would argue with a straight face that the McDouble is more “nutritious” than spinach.

Just for fun: Bountiful?

According to Smith, there are 14,000 McDonald’s storefronts in American. That’s a lot.

But there are 36,536 grocery stores. Let’s say half carry frozen spinach at prices comparable to, or less than, Safeway (which I used in my cost analysis above). That’s more than 18,000 stores.

Nearly everything is bountiful in America. And that’s part of the problem. You can have too much of a good thing.

Senselessness: Cheaper Than A McDouble!

The newsstand price of a weekday issue of the New York Post is $1.00, the same price as a McDouble. For that money, I can read Kyle Smith’s movie blog, or his occasional foray into a critical social debate that demands meaningful economic deliberation. Alternatively, I can just read those pieces for free on the Internet. But both the burger and the blogger come loaded with hidden costs: the burger’s are outlined above; the blogger’s are oversimplification and cavalier grandstanding.

Smith says that “class snobs, locavore foodies and militant anti-corporate types” are “completely heartless when it comes to the other side of the equation: cost.” It’s an eye-catching line, and has some roots in truth. But are economists heartless when they take into account real externalities? Am I heartless for pointing out that micronutrients critical to health are far less costly in produce than in burgers? Or that we’re literally eating ourselves to death because of our collective belief that food is always better when it rings in cheaper at the register?

If Smith were a respectable conservative thinker, he’d admonish the government for lavishing subsidies upon food producers and the industries that support them (energy, etc.). He would be irate about the massive economic inefficiencies caused by artificially cheap fat and carbs. But he’s not. He’s just grabbing attention by defending the status quo against “Marxists” like me who have been taught to think by the nutty leftists at a top graduate program in business. Are the poor people that Smith defends doing better because of the ascent of the McDouble? Look at the stats on obesity. Or the broadening real income gap that’s catalyzing the slow death of a once-vibrant middle class. That gap has been widened by higher health care costs. It certainly has not by closing thanks to industrialized food costs.

The status quo is the McDouble. Is that the best we can do? Is that The Greatest Food In Human History? For our sake, I sure hope not.

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