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The Next, Episode #45
AI as Wal-mart, why decaf is bad for you, and the American food system
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 non-alc wine), which do tens of millions in revenue. I’m now working on TrueMed, which allows health and wellness brands to tap into $150B in consumer 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 42 on finding work you love and why I’m worried about environmental toxins. Otherwise, let’s dive in!
🆕 What’s new
As of today, I’m just getting back from spending a few weeks in Europe. I’m not one of those “Europe does everything better” people. But boy is it hard to spend time there and not be frustrated with the state of health in the US.
The craziest thing in the world is just how bad the state of American health is today vs 50 years ago. 50 years ago, chronic disease was roughly 1/5th of what it is today. Healthcare as a percentage of GDP was 4x less. All while people exercised less, smoked more, and hardly ever dieted.
Until literally the last 50 years, health has been our birthright. You’re born with health, and lose it as you age.
That’s no longer the case. Today, 25% of American kids have diabetes or prediabetes, childhood obesity/overweight is at 45%, it’s all horrible. And I’m convinced it’s due to our wildly messed up food system.
This is literally the biggest issue in the US. If anything is to end the American experiment, I suspect it’s the fact that we no longer have a healthy populace. I don’t think we can have a healthy society made up of unhealthy people, which is why I find this problem so important.
Apply this rule of thumb everywhere. You’ll soon find yourself seeking better advice, and ignoring bad advice you previously considered.
💪 Health stuff
Today, I have another exciting episode of “Justin Ruins a Thing I Like”. Let’s talk about decaf coffee!
Like almost everything in the food system (just wait until we talk about milk), Big Food has taken something great - coffee - and decided to introduce poison to increase profits and improve product consistency.
Before we dive into what’s going on with decaf, just take a second and think: how crazy is it that the default foods in our food system - grains, milk, vegetables - are regularly treated with poisonous chemicals. And if you want less poison in your foods (by buying organic), you have to pay a premium to do so. Thank you for shopping at Whole Foods!
Anyway, back to decaf coffee.
Decaffeination is the process by which caffeine is removed from coffee beans. Some less common, chemical-free methods include the Swiss Water Process, in which beans are soaked in hot water, then passed through an activated charcoal filter to trap the caffeine molecules, then re-soaked in the water they were in to re-absorb flavor.
There’s also the CO2 process, where beans are placed in a high-pressure chamber with CO2. As the gas penetrates the beans, it dissolves the caffeine inside and the CO2 (in liquid form) is drained off.
Unfortunately, this is not how most decaf is made.
Most decaf is made using either the Direct Solvent Process or the Indirect Solvent Process. In both methods, coffee beans are treated with chemical solvents (often ethyl acetate or methylene chloride) that extract and remove the caffeine. These solvents fully penetrate the beans, extract the caffeine, and the beans are then steamed to remove the solvents from the beans.
What are ethyl acetate or methylene chloride, you may be wondering? As you may have guessed, these solvents are known to cause health issues when exposures are high (with methylene chloride being the chief offender). Exposure to methylene chloride can literally knock you unconscious, has been associated with liver, lung, and nervous system damage, and chronic exposure has been linked to cancer in multiple animal studies.
Here’s where things get really silly. For workers handling this known toxic substance, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration set a permissible exposure limit of 25 parts per million (ppm) over an 8-hour workday. If you’re exposed to more than that in the course of your workday, the OSHA is gonna say something to your employer.
However, the FDA in their wisdom limits methylene chloride residue in decaf coffee to 10ppm, or just about 40% of the daily OSHA limit. So, rather than say “hey, we know this is poisonous, how about using the CO2 or Swiss Process instead?”, the FDA has decided to allow a known poison into nearly all decaf coffee. Just not too much!
Unfortunately, given the FDA limits for methylene chloride residue in decaf coffee, it’s quite possible - even likely - that many who drink multiple cups of decaf a day are getting more methylene chloride in their systems than the OSHA daily limit for workers.
Move along, nothing to see here, just another example of how the FDA has totally and completely fallen down on the job as it pertains to protecting our citizens and food system from known, bad things. Just like they have with environmental toxins, glyphosate, and countless other areas.
I’m planning to do a deeper dive into the FDA at some point, but for my money, the FDA has likely killed more Americans through poor regulations than any other agency out there. And in the meantime, if you’re looking for a good decaf brand, I’d give Groundwork a try.
🤑 Biz stuff
When I graduated college, my best friend and I took 2 weeks to drive across the country, Philly to LA, to see as much of this beautiful country as we could.
When driving across the country, something becomes readily apparent: small towns are dead.
Small, rural towns that Wendell Berry wrote about as being vibrant centers of small town life are practically non-existent. Populations halved, businesses shut down, homes abandoned… in many towns, there were practically only two things: a Wal-Mart and a smattering of strip malls storefronts.
I have mixed feelings about Wal-Mart. On the one hand, Wal-Mart is a boon to small town residents. Some economists have said that a Wal-Mart coming to town is the equivalent of every resident getting a 10% raise. Wal-Mart is certainly good for consumers, as they can now purchase higher quality goods for less (which they do). Goodbye more-expensive local butcher, hello Wal-Mart meat department!
Wal-Mart has done wonders for consumers in the short term. But in the long term, I’m less certain. Driving through these small towns, it’s clear that many of the small businesses that used to sustain and employ the local community have died, outcompeted by Wal-Mart and its network of international suppliers. What is undoubtedly good for consumers - more products at lower cost - is also not good for the communities in which those consumers live.
When Wal-Mart came to many towns, it disrupted, globalized, and replaced many of the functions of small-town small businesses. Products and services (making and selling clothing, processing and selling food) that were once done locally by small businesses that employed tens to hundreds of people in the community are now done by a massive multinational corporation. And the money that once freely circulated locally, now leaves Smallville, USA, and goes directly to Wal-Mart and their vast network of similarly large suppliers.
As local suppliers get outcompeted by their larger multinational brethren, they die. And what was once a vibrant economic and social scene hollows out, as the community becomes fully reliant on one retailer and their supplier network.
I worry that AI going to be the Wal-Mart of white-collar work. And that it will be basically an economic bomb dropped on developing economies.
It’s hard not to watch what’s happening in AI with a sense of awe. So much progress in such a short period of time, as AI can now code, write songs, make poetry, do science, and more. It’s also starting to do white-collar work: there are now AI-enabled companies that do customer support, software development, sales calls, legal work, assistant work, etc. The list of things will only continue to grow.
I worry that developing economies are nowhere near ready for this. Once AI becomes good enough to do 95% of bookkeeping, accounting, and simple customer support, how will India and its massive IT and accounting sector do? As gets better at customer support, assistant work, labeling images, etc - what happens to the thousands of people in the Philippines currently doing this work? Heck, even here in the US, I’m not sure that each town and city’s local accounting, law firm, sales office, and the like will survive as these tools rapidly improve.
As amazing as these tools are (and truly, I think they are amazing), I worry that we are not yet ready or prepared for a world where much white-collar work is simply done by a large language model somewhere in the Bay Area. And though I’m not necessarily an AI doomer, I do wonder about the implications this technology has for local cities and economies all over the world.
😌 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 - This article was fantastic, about how there’s a class of people in society today who are subtly incentivized to push ever-constant change, everywhere in society. I see this in health influencers all the time. In nearly every case, eating well, moving, getting sunlight and avoiding toxin exposure is 99% of the “stay healthy” game. Yet so many influencers spend their time instead focusing minutiae like butthole sunning, cupping, methylene blue, or any number of interventions that I just can’t help but think do less than changing one’s diet.
I’m guilty of this too, always looking for what’s new and what’s Next. The new + next is always more interesting, though in domains like health it’s much more likely that sticking to what’s tried and true is actually the most effective path.
📚 Book rec - I really, really enjoyed Brain Energy by Dr. Chris Palmer. The book laid out a very compelling case for something I’ve talked about for a few years now: my suspicion that many (if not most) mental health disorders are actually caused by metabolic dysfunction that manifests in certain kinds of behaviors.
⌚ Cool product - I’ve recommended these guys before, but after getting multiple questions about what non-toxic socks, underwear, shirts, etc I wear I figured I’d link to them again. Their socks and underwear are great, their other stuff less so.
I’m still learning more about PFAS and other toxins in our environment, but it does seem clear that polyester (what almost all soft underwear is made of) kills your sperm count. With clothing, I take an 80/20 approach and wear non-toxic socks and underwear (ie the places where your body is relatively absorbent) all the time. I care less about shoes, shirts, pants and so on, though if I found a non-toxic brand whose shirts and pants I loved I would wear them constantly: just still on the hunt!
🎵 Music - This set (from an Anjunadeep live concert) is a killer. I’m also on the market for good music, so please send me any recs if you got ‘em.
🏀 Random - This past month I probably have listened to over 50 episodes of the Founder’s Podcast. It’s truly incredible: if you have any interest in entrepreneurs or anything like that, I have been absolutely obsessed. I’d recommend starting with the James Cameron episode, or for something further back, the Sam Walton one is also incredible.
I also really enjoyed my friend Jeremy’s exceptional podcast on Invest Like the Best if you find investing at all interesting.
🙋♂️ Ask - I’m planning to record a few podcast episodes diving into specific topics (water and health, toxin exposure, the philosophies of Ray Peat, etc) here in the next month or two. I’d love it if you’d share topics you think I should cover, or interesting individuals I should interview to go deep with!
Enjoy the last month of summer y’all, and you’ll be hearing from me soon. Please do let me know what topics you’d like me to dive into, and I’ll catch you in 30!