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The Next, Episode #46
Time horizons, the issue with nutrient density, and a vision for a better 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 a combined 9 figures in annual 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 42 on finding work you love and why I’m worried about environmental toxins. Otherwise, let’s dive in!
🆕 What’s new
I think Truemed is one part of a decades-long shift (that I hope to play a role in) in shifting money away from our sickcare system and towards one that incentivizes and drives wellness. This shift will take decades, and we have product ideas that will take decades to execute.
Thinking about all of the companies on decades-long time horizons really puts things in perspective, and makes us harder to compete with. I’m not the only one to notice this, as Jeff Bezos has famously said:
“If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people… Just by lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue”
With all the companies, I spend almost no time worried about competition. In 50 years, consumers will want (1) healthy products that (2) taste good at (3) a reasonable price point. I firmly believe Kettle & Fire can deliver that better than any other company in our category, and we can build that future better than our competitors can.
Same with Truemed: I’m just not sure that the founders behind our YC copycat care enough about actually fixing health in the US to stay at this for decades. As a result, we’ll make different investment decisions, recruit different people, and build a very different company: one that’s unlikely to be competitive with them in the long term.
It’s been interesting to contrast how I feel about competition today vs how I felt with past companies. With Fomo, a Shopify app I acquired in 2015 (and later sold), I was in it purely for the money. That’s okay - but as someone who was in it purely for the financial return, I was hyper-aware of everything our competition was doing. Every time a new one launched, I died just a little on the inside. Every new competitor increased the odds that I was investing my time for less financial gain. I wanted to buy and sell Fomo, make some money, and move on. And that orientation meant I only thought on short-term time horizons, 12-18 months.
It was a stressful way to run the business. Operating from the standpoint of “let’s just grow to $X, then sell” isn’t inspiring, isn’t fun, isn’t really how I want to operate anymore. As I’ve written before, I think the key to unlocking long time horizons is finding a problem or a mission that is endlessly fascinating. If I were a better writer, I’d have a neat ending to this section, but I don’t so 🤷.
💪 Health stuff
Today, I’d like to make you concerned about something you have almost no impact over. I’d like to talk about nutrient density, and how many of our foods have become far less nutrient dense in the last 70 years.
Since the 1950s, farmers have nearly tripled their crop yield (1) through a combination of high-density planting, copious fertilizer usage, and selecting for plant and animal genetics that lead to higher yields. An apple a day keeps the doctor away, but today you’ll need to eat three apples to get the same nutrient content you would have gotten from one back in the 1950s.
Let’s take chicken, for example. Since 1957, the weight of a standard chicken has increased more than 4x (2), as you can see in the photo below.
As farmers and ranchers responded to market pressures to increase yields, well, increase they did. It’s only recently that we are starting to realize the downsides of optimizing everything in our food system purely for yield.
As yields have increased, nutrient density - literally the amount of nutrients that our bodies absorb from the foods we eat - has hugely decreased. It makes sense: think of a bodybuilder taking steroids. In many ways, optimizing for one metric (muscle size in the case of our bodybuilder, yield in the case of our farmers) comes with tradeoffs in other areas. Today, the average vegetables found in our supermarkets are 5%-40% lower in mineral content than those from 50 years ago (3).
Chickens have seen a similar drop in nutrient density. 100 grams of chicken in 2004 contained just 25mg of DHA - a beneficial long-chain omega-3 fatty acid - compared to 170mg in 1980. At the same time, levels of linoleic acid - an inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid - had risen to 6,290mg per 100g portion compared to 2,400mg in 1980, a 2.6x increase.
So much of nutrient density comes down to soil health. If crops are grown in nutrient-rich soil - and given time to grow, develop, and uptake soil nutrients - they’ll be nutrient dense. Crops that rely heavily on chemical inputs (ie fertilizers) and are grown in less healthy soils are less nutrient dense. This is a big reason why organic crops have been found to contain significantly more minerals and other nutrients than non-organic (4). And, according to the book What Your Food Ate, there are absolutely enormous differences in nutrient density for crops, with studies showing spinach and bananas can have 4x-220x variation in mineral density depending on where and how they’re grown.
Unfortunately, nutrient density goes beyond organic and conventional, or the genetics that farmers and ranchers are selecting for. Nutrient density is also significantly impacted by the way our food is handled, with most produce losing 30%+ of its nutrient density within 3 days of harvest (5). Some crop varieties (like spinach) will lose up to 90% of its nutrient density within 48 hours or harvest!
Given most produce we consume in the US is consumed anywhere from 2-50 weeks after harvest (seriously, take a look), it’s safe to say that the average American today is consuming produce and foodstuffs that’s 50-95% less nutrient dense than what our grandparents ate just 70 years ago.
Not only is this bad for human health (because we are getting fewer nutrients in our diet than we used to), but I have a sneaking suspicion the lack of nutrient density in our food is also leading us to over-eat. A study in What Your Food Ate mentioned that when animals ate feed that lacked certain essential nutrients, they’d hugely overeat to ensure they were getting the necessary amounts of X nutrient in their diet. Rather than live with a lack of a key nutrient, animals responded to this nutrient-light diet by eating more.
Could this explain the very strange, very strong association between malnutrition and obesity?
Though I’m way out over my skis here, I suspect so. I also strongly suspect that the not-very-nutrient-dense foods the average American is eating is related to overconsumption of empty calories, cravings, and all sorts of things that come with the average American diet.
Though depressing across the board, I do have hope here. The more I’ve looked into nutrient density and understood what causes foods to be extremely nutrient dense (or not), the more I suspect that this is the vector on which we fix the food system.
Our current industrialized food system has spent decades and billions upon billions of dollars optimizing for yield, and shipping calories all over the US. As awareness of nutrient density continues to grow, I suspect that there will be a whole crop of smaller food brands and producers that will crop up to compete with Big Food on the nutrient-density dimension. At Kettle & Fire, we’ve run tests where our products have 1900% more collagen than other Big Food brands, and I suspect we’re not alone.
As soon as measuring nutrient density becomes cheap and easy, my hope is we’ll see a return to a more local food system by optimizing for nutrition, not just yield.
I’d love to help catalyze this shift towards nutrient density as much as I can, so if you are aware of anyone working in this area please let me know.
🤑 Biz stuff
There’s another way in which I think the US could address our nutrient density concerns. Namely, bringing down the cost to grow specialty, non-corn/soy/wheat crops.
The below is inspired by an email conversation I had with the brilliant Austin Vernon. As he raised in our conversation, two big factors that limit our agricultural diversity (ie corn/soy/wheat everywhere) are labor productivity and nutrition/taste/usefulness of different products.
Today, there are a lot of crops that people want, but that are just too hard to mechanically harvest. Crops being hard to harvest means the crops remain niche and expensive: think prickly pear cactus fruit, or random tree crops.
The history of cotton is an interesting historical example. The market for cotton is massive, and it’s essential to clothing, manufacturing, all kinds of final products. Even still, it took many decades of equipment improvement and selectively breeding cotton plants that were easier to harvest to for manual cotton picking to basically disappear.
The optimization of agriculture for massive machines, a single crop, and a lot of fertilizer is closely tied to the technology we have available to us today. What Austin raised is quite interesting: that as humanoid robots (like Tesla Bots) actually work, it could unlock the mechanical harvest of a whole host of specialty crops. Farmers could go from manual harvesting of specialty crops, to buying robots with greater ability to harvest all kinds of products.
Something like this could be a huge unlock for regenerative agriculture, permaculture, and all agricultural approaches that involve growing lots of symbiotic crops (rather than a single crop like most large farmers today). What’s more, many studies looking at permaculture and other approaches find higher yields than industrial agriculture, but these approaches are hard to scale up due to how labor-intensive it is to harvest multiple kinds of species.
Most of these permaculture alternatives you hear about are not quite realistic when one’s farm is thousands of acres, it only works for a 50 acre hobby farm. I suspect if you gave farmers other ways to make money that are more interesting - ie investing in multiple crop species, using agricultural techniques that build soil health - and farmers would transition, especially if it makes their income stream more regular and predictable.
I’m not a robotics expert, but I am hopeful that humanoid robots could make more regenerative approaches to farming cheap, which would increase demand for well-raised food and specialty crops. Today, we have an astounding lack of genetic diversity in our food system: something like 95%+ of all chickens are the same genetics (the Cornish Cross), and the last 100 years the genetic diversity in our crops has shrunk by over 75% (6).
Making it cheaper and easier to harvest all kinds of diverse plants is likely key to unlocking a better, more diverse food system. And I suspect after chatting with Austin that humanoid robots could have an interesting role to play here.
😌 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 had a light month of reading articles, so don’t have anything here. What I do have though is a movie - the first I’ve watched this year! If you haven’t watched Fantastic Fungi, I highly recommend it. Between the movie and a mushroom-themed dinner I was kindly invited to, I’ve been inspired to learn more about mushrooms and their impact on our health and cognition. If you have any resources on the topic, please send them over, and be sure to check out the documentary!
📚Book rec - If you haven’t read the Red Rising series (sci-fi), you are missing out. The 6th book came out recently, and I devoured 600+ pages in something like 5 days. Sorry mom for ignoring your texts that week 😬.
⌚Cool product - Related to my mushroom interest, I’m eagerly awaiting the launch of Terrashroom, an easy way to grow mushrooms at home (disclosure: I’m a small investor). I’m spending more time figuring out how to grow some of my own food at home (related to the nutrient density stuff above…), and Terrashroom seems like an easy and fun way to do so. I believe if you pre-order now you’ll get a discounted price when they launch in just a few short months.
🎵Music - This Cercle set is a bit different than my normal vibe: much more classically-inspired, much more chill. But it is incredibly, wildly, choking-up-while-listening beautiful. And I’m a sucker for classical instruments combined with electronic beats. Toss in the stunning scenery of Iceland, and wow - I was blown away.
🏀Random - My friend Molly very kindly had me on her podcast to talk about ways to fix the food system, increase entrepreneurship, and a bunch of other topics. Molly is an incredible interviewer, and I think many of you might enjoy my episode on Moth Minds.
🔥Hot take - I’m trying to be more brave sharing my hot takes on what’s going on in the world, and am adding this section as a way to practice that courage. Going forward, look to this section for a (very brief) hot take on a random topic or idea, with absolutely zero explanation of why I think that thing is true.
This month, my hot take is that we are extremely early in understanding that most mental health issues - anxiety, depression, ADHD, etc. - are simply the brain’s manifestation of metabolic issues. I suspect over the next decade, we’ll find that nutrition and lifestyle interventions vastly outperform talk therapy, as I’ve mentioned before.
🙋♂️Ask - If you know of any health + wellness products or services that cost between $299-$2000, I’d love to chat with them about Truemed.
That’s all I got this month! Summer is at an end, temperatures in Austin are cooling down, and my favorite season is approaching. I hope you enjoyed the summer, picked up something interesting in this read, and I’ll see you in 30.