The Next Brand, Episode #18

When to ignore experts, light therapy, and a trend I'm betting big on

Hi there, and welcome to The Next Brand - my take on health, wellness and building consumer brands.

In the last 4 years I’ve founded 2 health brands (Kettle & Fire and Perfect Keto), which each do tens of millions in revenue. I’ve raised ~$20mm to build Kettle & Fire, gotten into 10k+ retail stores, bootstrapped Perfect Keto, launched 80+ SKUs… and have a small portfolio of Shopify apps I run on the side. Previously, I worked in tech and had no experience in CPG, DTC or any other 3-letter industries.

If you missed past episodes, you can catch up here (Episode 13, 14, 15, 16, 17). Otherwise, let’s dive in!

🆕 What’s new

Modern medicine (and doctors who practice it) is incredible at triage care. If you’re in a car accident, you’re in luck: doctors and the medical system is well set up to ensure you have a safe and healthy recovery. There are thousands of studies, clinical trials and all sorts of scientific rigor going into many of western medicine’s recommendations. 

In areas like nutrition? Not so much. 

I’m seeing more and more people rely on randomized clinical trials and research to make any sort of nutritional recommendation. If there’s not a randomized clinical trial (RCT, the gold standard for determining causation in a study) that points to clear evidence of harm or benefit, they refuse to believe it. 

Nowhere do I see this more than when talking about vegetable oils. 

I’ve talked about vegetable oils before, and my friend Jeff Nobbs has written extensively on the topic + why they’re bad for you. Between looking at the studies and thinking from 1st principles, I feel pretty damn confident that vegetable oils and their high omega-6 and linoleic acid content are absolutely harmful to humans. 

Yet if you ask the average MD that’s been chirping me on Twitter, they think I’m an idiot for claiming vegetable oils are a root cause of the decades-long decline in American health. 

To explain why I think they’re wrong - and why I think “experts” regularly get this stuff wrong - let’s talk about trans fats. 

Today, it’s commonly known that trans fats are Bad. They’re causally linked to heart disease (the leading cause of death among Americans), and banning them is estimated to save something like 90,000 lives each year (!!). Artificial trans fats are really, really bad. 

Scientists first published studies in the 1950s that pointed towards this stuff being very not good for humans. At the time, trans fats were being added to processed foods to increase shelf stability and flavor, and were marketed as a “healthy alternative” to saturated fats. 

In the 60s and 70s, Dr. Fred Kummerow and other researchers had mounting evidence that trans fats were bad for you. In 1976, they presented such evidence to the FDA as part of an FDA evaluation to determine if trans fats were “generally recognized as safe”. 

Despite the evidence, trans fats were given the “generally recognized as safe” designation, opening the floodgates for food companies all over the country to use trans fats in any and all products. 

Not only were these products given the FDA’s blessing, but scientists working for big food companies worked hard to cast doubt on any and all anti trans fat research. From an excellent article on the history of trans fats:

In the '80s, scientists employed by Kraft and Procter & Gamble — Dr. Thomas Applewhite and Dr. J. Edward Hunter — would routinely unpick and cast doubt on the emerging science of trans fat's health harms, often in journal articles.

The pair would also work behind the scenes, according to investigative reporter Nina Teicholz, finding ways of getting papers that were critical of trans fats reviewed negatively in the pre-publication academic peer review process. As one colleague of Applewhite's said, "Protecting trans fats from the taint of negative scientific findings was our charge."

Sounds a bit like when the sugar industry paid scientists to blame fat for health issues

Anyway - as time ticked on, evidence mounted that trans fats were harmful. In 1994 - a full 17 years after the FDA had recognized trans fats as safe, and 40 years after they were first associated with harm - the scientific advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to add trans fats to nutrition labels. A move the FDA complied with… 12 years later in 2006. 

After years of mounting evidence - and after 4 years of waiting for a response to his petition to ban trans fats - in 2013 our heroic Dr. Kummerow finally sued the FDA to respond to his petition and to ban partially hydrogenated oils unless evidence could be found for their safety. 

Surprise surprise - no evidence was found. 3 months after the lawsuit, the FDA announced they would no longer recognize trans fats safety. A full 37 years after recognizing them as safe for human consumption. 

Let’s think about this for a second. For 60 years after the first studies indicating trans fats may cause heart disease, the FDA + scientific consensus was that trans fats were basically fine. Had you spoken up in the 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s about how these things might be bad for you, most scientists would have laughed you out of the room and tarred you a science-hating bumpkin. Show me the RCT, silly science skeptic! 

With vegetable oils, well, unfortunately, I think the same shit is happening again. I’m seeing “experts” rely on scientific consensus and ignore studies that point towards issues with vegetable oils. These same experts don’t think from 1st principles, and won’t believe anything that doesn’t explicitly come out of a randomized controlled trial. 

Nevermind that humans today are sicker than they ever have been. And nevermind that for millions of years, humans have thrived on a variety of diets, yet never has there been a diet in history so high in omega-6s. 

Just thinking from 1st principles, it seems unlikely that we humans can be totally peachy consuming upwards of 30% of our calories in the form of extremely processed vegetable oils, when 100 years ago this stuff practically did not exist in the human diet. We’re consuming highly processed seed + vegetable oils in amounts never before seen in human history - why wouldn’t this have a major impact on our health? 

Today, the food industry spends more than $12 billion a year funding nutrition studies (while the NIH spends only $1 billion), polluting and diluting independent research and confusing policy makers, the public, doctors and nutritionists.

In a time where most nutrition studies are funded by Big Food and Americans are sicker than ever, all I think one can do is rely on first principles to navigate through the current mess that are our sensemaking institutions. Even if that means ignoring some recommendations from credentialed experts. 

💪 Health stuff

I’ve recently been digging into testosterone and other hormonal markers. Boy is something not great going on. I’m still in research mode, so stay tuned for a future deep-dive.

In the interim, let’s talk about light. 

You may have heard of red light therapy. You may have heard of infrared saunas. You’ve probably heard that blue light messes up your sleep.

But you probably didn’t know how much these things (and other related interventions) can help improve health outcomes. 

And you probably haven’t seen a 5,328-study (and counting) spreadsheet on how various types of “light therapy” could help with everything from hearing loss to bone repair.

(Shout-out to Michael Chapiro’s for putting together the spreadsheet and summarizing dozens of studies on light and health in his Chroma newsletter.)

As I dug into studies around light and health, some of the studies are mind-blowing. 

Red light made mice less diabetic (“improved insulin sensitivity”). Near-infrared light “goes toe-to-toe with Ibuprofen for pain and it’s a tie.” IR light “helps treat hearing loss” via “enhanced mitochondrial membrane potential and ATP synthesis by photobiomodulation.”

I won’t spend too much time summarizing the findings, because Chroma does an awesome job of that. You can also just throw a dart at the spreadsheet (don’t blame me for broken laptop screens) and randomly be surprised at what else light might be able to treat.

We live most of our lives indoors, and modern buildings filter out much of the sun’s natural light spectrum. For example, standard windows block nearly 100% of UV-B and UV-C light, and typical indoor environments have only about 1% of the brightness of an outdoor environment.

And our indoor lifestyles are messing with our circadian rhythms. And as Dr. Satchin Panda, professor at the Salk Institute, explains in The Circadian Code, messing up your circadian rhythm messes up pretty much every process in your body and mind.

As TB12 Sports explains:

“The human circadian rhythm is centered around three things: light, breakfast, and physical activity — in that order. In the morning, while we sleep, the body tapers down its production of melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel sleepy. Breathing, heart rate, and core temperature gradually increase until we finally wake up, open our eyes, and take in the first light of the day — historically, the blue light of the sky.

This blue light resets the body’s master clock (also known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN), which synchronizes the clocks in the pineal gland, pituitary gland, adrenal gland, and the rest of the hypothalamus. It’s the head coach of all the brain’s timing and sets the pace of the entire body.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to throw off this master clock. Between lots of unnatural light exposure, 24-7 access to food, and lack of physical activity, it’s easy for your circadian rhythms to get thrown off. And when your circadian rhythms get thrown off, it can have all kinds of health consequences. 

One study found that simply exposing someone to bright morning light helped treat insomnia. There’s even promising data that something as simple as literally exposing someone to bright morning light helped with ADHD, fibromyalgia and other pain disorders, and symptoms of Parkinson's disease and dementia.

Light exposure (or lack of it) and its impact on human circadian rhythms is also a likely reason why night shift workers tend to have higher incidence of cancer and other health issues. 

But the question is: What do we actually do with all of this?

The good news is, the interventions are easy. Avoid artificial light 1-2 hours before bed. Go on a walk outside when you wake up. And - if you really want to go hardcore - join me and a few friends in setting up an outdoor desk. Then a few weeks later, enjoy all your friends asking about how you got so tan 😂. 

🤑 Biz stuff

We don’t want our parents’ drugs. Nicotine consumption has been declining for decades, the sober curious movement is starting to gain steam, and I’m seeing a few friends start to re-examine their relationships with caffeine (along with Michael Pollan). 

People want better drugs. Drugs that give them more energy (like caffeine, but better!), decrease anxiety (like alcohol, but better!), drugs that make them vomit all over the floor and ruin friendships (alcohol!). 

Humans love changing our experience of consciousness, and I see no reason why that’ll change anytime soon. We’ve been altering consciousness with alcohol and other plants for literally millions of years (as have animals!), and I expect the trend to continue. 

More, I expect it to accelerate. At this point, I’m pretty sure people are broadly underestimating just how big an impact psychedelics are going to have on culture and our generation over the next decade. Not only in the creative world (ie artists and musicians using them), but in the world of mental health. 

Already - and even with research banned for the last 40 years - psychedelic assisted therapy is showing promise (and in many cases beating other treatments) for treating:

  1. Anxiety

  2. Alcoholism

  3. PTSD

  4. Smoking cessation

  5. OCD

  6. Chronic pain

And more. All this for a class of drugs that we could only start to research in the last 2 decades after Nixon banned such research in 1970 via the Controlled Substances Act. Thanks, tricky dick! 

Though more people are talking about psychedelics today than at any point I can remember, I still think people are underestimating just how big this trend is going to be. This class of drugs seems to work better than many pharma-developed drugs for depression and anxiety. Just creating a better antidepressant alone would hugely benefit the 37mm+ people who take them regularly: not to mention the benefits others experience in the creative or social realm. 

And unlike this terrible program told me in grade school, this class of drugs is actually relatively safe (highly recommend this read).

In fact, I’d argue that if we’d discovered psychedelics before alcohol, it’s likely alcohol - not psychedelics - would be the banned substance. 

Regulations around psychedelics are finally starting to change. Recently, five more states voted to legalize cannabis. Oregon also legalized psilocybin, and there are more states to come. These measures partly reflect a steady change in public opinion (support for legalization rose from 1/3 to 2/3rds of the population in the last two decades), and I expect they’ll continue as popular support grows and they’re shown to be relatively safe and effective at dealing with various mental health issues. 

Beyond psychedelics, I’m all for more people quitting smoking, drinking less and doing less to burn out their adrenals via caffeine overuse. As people get access to drugs that help them lower anxiety, improve their relationships, work through personal issues and overcome addictions, I’m hopeful that we’ll slowly slouch our way towards a society of better, happier people. 

It’s also a big business opportunity. Though I’m not one to give financial advice, I do suspect that investing early in this trend will pay off. Either by investing in some publicly traded psychedelic therapy stocks or investing in a psychedelic focused fund (which I’ve done), it’s a trend I believe in and am betting big on. 

😌 Dope stuff on the internet

Some of my favorite things since the last newsletter (note: I don’t get paid to recommend anything here):

  • 📰  Article - I have an affinity for long, well-researched articles digging into topics of interest. In that area, Nintil’s blog is one of the best on the internet: everything is well-researched, thoughtful and must take literally tens of hours to write. How this stuff is free I have no idea.
    His latest blog post on how to best fund science was extremely compelling. As a society we need to find better ways to get more progress per unit of funding, and figuring out better models to fund science is one of the highest-leverage areas to focus on. His blog post breaks down the tradeoffs and models likely to work if we want more bang for our collective science buck. Give it a read if it’s something you’re interested in.

  • 📚 Book rec - Rationalist Julia Galef recently launched Scout Mindset, which I highly recommend. If you’re at all interested in making better sense of what’s going on in today’s crazy world, I highly recommend this book. Not only is it practical, but having a scout mindset is one that will pay dividends: both in terms of having more accurate beliefs, and by making you a less dogmatic thinker. And in today’s highly charged world, I think we all could use a bit more truth-seeking and less dogmatism.

  • Cool product - I recently moved and have had the fun task of furnishing a brand new house. I’ve been using Italic to buy a TON of stuff: sheets, blankets, shorts, shirts (especially their performance tees), glassware… everything I’ve bought from them has been remarkably high quality, and at a really good price point. I’d recommend checking them out, and use my link for $30 off a purchase (I don’t get paid to mention this, but do get $30 if you sign up and like the product). I’m only recommending it because I’ve been really enjoying the products they make.

  • 🎵 Music - This Modd set is just as good as their other stuff: deep base, chill, well stitched together… I just love what these guys continue to produce.

  • 🏀 Random - As I mentioned on Twitter this month, I’m seeing more and more friends opt out of drinking as much. However, there’s still a need + desire for a beverage that drinks like a beer (or wine), but without the booze. I’ve been drinking a lot of Hopwtr (or, if you’re in Austin, the St. Elmo’s Hop Water is even better) and a lot of Surely as beer + wine replacements, and loving them.  

***

That’s all I got this month! Last month, along with a friend, I tried to tweet something every day to get over my fear of sharing my thoughts in a public forum. Doing so has allowed me to meet some cool people, and get dunked on by hundreds more (just read responses to this tweet). The internet is a special place. 

I’ll likely continue to use Twitter more regularly. Would love to see you over there if you want to give me a follow @jwmares

Otherwise, if you’re feeling extra generous today, I’d love if you’d forward this newsletter to just one person you think would enjoy it. This is a labor of love for me and I’d love to bring more people into the fold. 

Enjoy the month,

❤️Justin