The Next, Episode #38
A TV appearance, why Europeans are less sick, and where to invest the next decade
Hi there, and welcome to The Next - my take on health, wellness, and company building.
In the last few years I’ve founded 3 health brands (Kettle & Fire, Perfect Keto, Surely), which each do tens of millions in revenue. I’m now working on TrueMed, which allows health and wellness brands to accept HSA/FSA funds. Previously, I worked in tech and had no experience in CPG, DTC, or any other 3-letter industries.
If you missed past episodes, I recommend checking out Episode 37 on the bonkers Tuft’s Food Compass, the one that tells Americans Lucky Charms are healthier than steak. Otherwise, let’s dive in!
🆕 What’s new
I was on national news for the first time in my life, wearing a Sephora store worth of makeup. Jesse Watters had me on to discuss the joke that is the Tufts Food Compass, which I wrote about in my last newsletter.
Note who looks like they have a national TV show, and who does not.
The experience was extremely disorienting: before going on, I’d assumed that segments like these are similar to being on a Zoom call. Not at all.
The way they film these segments is by putting you in a dark room, turn 5 lights on you, and you stare into a camera and respond to a tiny earpiece with audio quality no better than a 1930s phonograph. You’re on for just a few minutes, basically to confirm points the producer wants to make. And then it ends.
Leaving the room, I was encouraged that Fox is digging into what I think should be the largest bipartisan issue of our time: that our food system is making us sick, infertile, and obese.
Here are four facts about food corruption I think about often (from Calley’s amazing newsletter):
Soda companies spend 11x more on nutrition studies than the NIH. 82% percent of independently funded studies show harm from sugar-sweetened beverages, but 93% of industry-sponsored studies said no harm (this info is from the excellent book Food Fix).
95% of the panel who created the most recent nutrition guidelines had financial ties to food or pharmaceutical companies.
In 1963, the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) paid Harvard researchers the equivalent of $50k to refute sugar's role in heart disease, and researchers happily produced the results they were hired to produce. Instead of blaming sugar, Harvard and the SRF blamed cholesterol and saturated fat. Today, after 60 years of fat-is-bad food policy, Americans have never been in worse health, with no shortage of studies vindicating fat — including saturated fat.
As we've discussed, 80% of American subsidies go to corn, grains, and soy oil. Amazingly, cigarettes (tobacco) receive four times more government subsidies (2%) than all fruits and vegetables combined (0.45%).
Truly, I think the biggest risk that America faces over the next 20 years is our sick population driving increased healthcare costs that nearly-bankrupt the country. And I don’t think we get there without fixing our food system.
💪 Health stuff
Why is it that so many people have the experience of going to Europe, eating whatever they want, and feeling totally fine and dandy afterward?
I had a similar experience this summer. I spent a few weeks in France, a place where a chocolate croissant, multiple espressos and a cigarette before 10am is not uncommon. Yet for the most part, the people around me were relatively healthy.
The data bears this out as well, as Europe boats a significantly lower obesity rate than the US as a whole.
Why is this?
I don’t have all (or really, any) of the answers. But I do have some strong suspicions.
A major reason I suspect is pesticide load. The US uses 150 pesticides that the WHO considers hazardous to human health, 85 of which the EU has banned (1, 2). In 2016, the US used 322 million pounds of pesticides that are banned in the EU, meaning that more than 25% of the pesticides used in America are illegal in Europe.
When it comes to chemicals, Europe also takes a precautionary stance. For new chemicals, the EU requires manufacturers to submit toxicity data to regulators before approving the use of new chemicals. Not so in the US. While the EPA requires safety assurances from manufacturers for new chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), for some reason (*cough* special interests *cough*) this does not cover food or pesticides. This means that in the US, we rely on agriculture companies to tell us how safe the chemicals are they spray on nearly all of our foods, and in the EU, they… don’t (3).
Big Food companies also literally make different products for the US vs Europe due to their labeling and ingredient standards.
Take Ritz Crackers, for example. The American version has a bunch of weird stuff that the European version doesn’t. Multiply this by thousands of food products that people consume thousands of times, and these differences add up.
Lastly, things like soybean oil and other seed oils are used far less commonly in Europe than they are in the US. Even here, soybean oil would be FAR less common if it weren’t subsidized to the tune of $6 billion per year. But subsidized it is, so now Americans get nearly 20% of their total calories from highly processed soybean + seed oils (4).
If any of you know more about this topic, please do share. I’d love to learn more about what’s going on in our food system that’s not in the EU, as I think it’s an incredibly important thing to understand.
🤑 Biz stuff
In 2005, YC began investing in the uninvestable. That meant funding young, inexperienced, highly technical founders.
YC’s first class of startup founders
Early YC was one of the best funds ever. YC alum have created some of the world’s most valuable companies: Airbnb, Stripe, OpenAI, Doordash just to name a few. And YC won by willingly funding a class of people that traditional venture wasn’t so hot on.
YC crushed it from an investing standpoint by giving resources to a class of people that (at the time) felt hard to invest in. It made me wonder: who (or what) are the uninvestable asset classes of today that will drive huge returns over the coming decade? What’s worth investing in now, today, that over the next decade is likely to generate historic returns?
I have a few thoughts, starting with hyper-talented teenagers.
My friend David made a good point: when we watch the Olympics, we don’t say wow that athlete is amazing for a teenager. We evaluate them as one of the best in the world, regardless of their age.
The success of programs like the Thiel Fellowship suggests to me that investing in hyper-talented teens has a lot of upside. Kids under 20 who got Thiel Fellowships have started companies worth something like $300B, with Ethereum and Figma being two notable examples. Between Thiel Fellows and the success of teens like Transmissions11 - a high school student making an alleged $700k+ at Paradigm Crypto - I suspect this group of individuals has a LOT of potential that’s not being invested in.
I have a few other ideas. Creators - the people behind popular social media channels and the like - are currently hard to invest in, can take a while to monetize, and aren’t legible to old-world pools of capital. Yet from seeing the success of creators like Mr. Beast (and his $1.5B empire), I feel pretty strongly that whoever figures out how to invest in creators and their audience could see a lot of upside.
Lastly (and this is a bit of a flyer), I think that DAOs are interesting and very much fit the weird + hard-to-invest in criteria of early YC founders. Though new, there are real things happening in DAO-land: companies are raising money, salaries are getting paid, public goods are being funded, and the Constitution was bid on.
I’m curious what others think here. Investing in the future can be both fun and lucrative, and I’d love to hear what y’all think is likely to do well over the coming decade.
😌 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’ve been seeing a lot of hype on Twitter about the magical weight loss drug Wegovy, aka semaglutide (or GLP-1 agonists for the technical among us). Scott Alexander has a great writeup here on the economics of the thing. I’m doing further research: on the one hand, it really does seem like a drug that works to help with weight loss. Certainly, there are millions of people in the world that could use some help in that department, and even if there are side effects it feels likely that the known downsides of obesity are worse than the unknown risks that come with semaglutide.
At the same time, we don’t exactly have a strong track record when it comes to miracle drugs. To the extent that obesity is a symptom of a broken metabolism (which I believe it is), I’m not sure that this is the miracle cure people wish for. And I certainly don’t think it addresses the chronic disease crisis we have in our midst.
📚 Book rec - If you’re interested in going deeper on the food system and how the health of our soil drives nutrient density, What Your Food Ate is the book for you. It further reinforced my thinking that everything is connected. Healthy soil = healthy ecosystem = healthy animals = healthy crops = healthy people.
It also raised some interesting questions I plan to dig into further around nutrient deficiencies. Our food has become less nutrient-dense the last few decades. When animals in captivity don’t get enough of key nutrients, they overeat. Could a similar dynamic be occurring in humans today?
⌚ Cool product - I am a bad cook. I’ve lately become slightly less bad by using the Meater, which a friend kindly gifted me. If you’re looking for an easy way to never overcook a piece of meat again, I’ve been loving this tool.
🎵 Music - I’ve been bumping this set since a friend shared it a month ago. Enjoy!
🏀 Random - TrueMed is starting to work with a select few Shopify stores that sell health + wellness products. If you’re interested in joining our alpha and accepting HSA/FSA funds for your wellness products, sign up here.
🙋♂️ Ask - I’d love to hire someone to do more writing and research into health and the food system. If any of you out there are researchers and/or ghostwriters who want to dig into these topics, let me know!
That’s all I got this month! I hope your holidays were relaxing, your new year’s resolutions are still holding strong, and you and yours are in good health. See you in a month 👋
Thanks for writing about this, Justin. This is a national crisis that receives seemingly zero attention in mainstream outlets. I hate traveling home to North Dakota and seeing how many, young and adult alike, are so clearly sick and destined for a diminished future.
I really admire your writing and work, and want to contribute in my own way however I can. The public policy issues seem like the elephant in the room to me.
WHY I DON'T USE HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP
The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that high fructose corn syrup is not remotely natural due to the high level of processing and the use of at least one genetically modified enzyme required to produce it.
Health controversies remain over some studies implicating elevated blood cholesterol levels, diabetes, and obesity with excessive use of high fructose corn syrup.
In the ’70s, Americans started to replace pure cane sugar with high fructose corn syrup. It is used it in alarmingly vast amounts.
High fructose corn syrup is popular because it is less expensive than pure cane sugar, but only in the United States and Canada due to a system of price supports and sugar quotas imposed since May 1982.
This makes pure cane sugar twice the cost of high fructose corn syrup. Corn is also a government-subsidized crop, furthering incentives.
High fructose corn syrup is not well digested and is basically a non-food. It is a synthetic type of fructose - not a natural food. It is a genetically modified organism (GMO).
Any coincidence that the obesity epidemic in America became evident beginning in the early 1990s?
The claim is high fructose corn syrup and refined sugar are recognized by the body as the same and metabolized the same.
This is just not true. Research shows that high fructose corn syrup enters the body as a monosaccharide, a single sugar, fructose, requiring no further breakdown.
Why is that bad?
FRUCTOSE GOES STRAIGHT TO THE LIVER
Fructose typically is completely metabolized in the liver and stored as fat immediately but doesn’t send any signals to the brain. Fructose metabolism completely bypasses the brain.
On the other hand, refined sugar (sucrose) enters the body as a disaccharide or two sugar carbohydrates, fructose (fruit sugar) and dextrose (glucose). Eventually, through cellular metabolism, it is broken down into glucose, which the body uses as cellular fuel.
THE BRAIN NEEDS GLUCOSE
Glucose and fructose have very different metabolism and interact very differently with our hormones.
One MRI study measured the activity of fructose and glucose in the brain. Fructose showed almost no reaction at all.
Glucose showed a very calming effect in the satiety region. Glucose also reduces the release of the appetite enhancing hormone, ghrelin, into the bloodstream.
Fructose, on the other hand, just goes straight to the liver instead without any satiating effects on the brain.
The brain is one of the few organs that need glucose as an energy reserve. It cannot process fructose.
Fructose triggers a much stronger feeling of hunger than glucose-rich foods. But with the glucose, we reach a feeling of being full fairly quickly.
Yes, natural foods do contain fructose. But they usually contain fructose and glucose in equal amounts