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Articles from 2021 In January

SnackFutures' CoLab to help accelerate innovative snack startups

CoLab powered by SnackFutures logo

In this series, New Hope Network covers the ins and outs of accelerators and incubators across the United States that provide mentorship, funds and resources to help grow natural businesses. Here, a spokesperson from Mondelez International's SnackFutures provides insight into the company's new program for startups, CoLab.

What: CoLab powered by SnackFutures, a new startup program that provides a $20,000 grant as well as mentorship and engagement from the SnackFutures ecosystem.
When: The 12-week program kicks off the week of June 7, 2021, with both in-real-life and virtual activities.

When are CoLab applications open, and when is the application deadline? 

Applications for the 2021 class are now closed.

What types of companies does CoLab assist? 

Early stage, well-being snack brands.

What’s your mission in doing this work? 

The SnackFutures mission is to create a snacking world that is good for people, kind to the planet and deliciously fun. To do that, SnackFutures is creating its own brands and also investing in startups that align with the mission, to support their growth and find potential investment opportunities.

What top attributes is CoLab looking for in applicants? 

CoLab is looking for early stage well-being snack brands, which is defined as good for people and the planet, with at least $500,000 in revenue and proof of concept in the marketplace.

What is one game-changing piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs? 

Entrepreneurs are passionate—as they should be. It’s why they do what they do. But, to grow, you can’t let passion be a blind spot for progress. Discipline, focus and a willingness to evolve to meet consumers where they are is what will drive success.   

Naturade makes a splash in Costco

Naturade naturade costco display

Entrepreneurs always want to go big. They want people to like their product. They want to get into the store, into the chain, to go national. They want to figure out the secret to fantastic online sales, and to get into the biggest stores around.

Kareem Cook and Claude Tellis were classmates at Duke University. On the business track. Black.

They also had family members who suffered and even died from diabetes. And so a mission was born: to address diabetes and diet-related illness on a national scale.

Back in the 1990s, the pair started a healthy vending-machine company and led a movement in Los Angeles to switch out junk food in schools with healthy products.

Tellis’ father was the first Black person to graduate from LSU's medical school. “But he’s eaten poorly for years,” Tellis said.

Tellis said that, in Louisiana—infamous for being among the unhealthiest states in the country—people just do not link diet with health outcomes.

“We said, ‘Let’s raise some money. Let’s buy a company,’” said Cook. “We saw Naturade, which pioneered plant-based shakes in this country. We bought it and reimagined the company to address the issues that were most important to us.”

That was in 2012, and Naturade was originally founded in 1926. It's a true legacy company.

In 2021, five years shy of a century from its founding—after a near-decade trying to navigate natural products retailers, Amazon, engage with the Black community that really needs help with diabetes and obesity, and trying to get into any other stores that would take them—Cook and Tellis landed their biggest account yet: big-box retailer Costco.

“As far as we know,” said Tellis, “we’re the first Black-owned company to get into Costco. Definitely to get into our section in Costco. Kudos to Costco for taking a shot.”

Their journey, they say, is different from other brands. And its source is the uneasy cultural moment that was laid bare in 2020—elements of systemic racism that are all too often lost on or overlooked by white America.

BLM challenges

The natural products industry is full of mission-driven startups. The values-forward look of the entire enterprise differentiates this category of consumer goods versus any other. Yet even while leading with heart, every company has brass-tacks challenges around raising startup capital, getting in retail outlets, and guaranteeing contracts with retailers around maintaining sales.

Naturade was no different, especially regarding the issue of attracting the capital needed to take the brand to the next level. Tellis laments the apparent lack of leadership among private equity firms in taking on Black-owned companies.

“It’s not just that first check,” he said. “It’s that second check and that third check.”

It was always a challenge to do anything other than just take whatever profits they were getting from sales and plow them back into the company. Attracting private equity to supercharge the retail sales success was a series of "shoulda coulda wouldas."

"As many private equity firms as there are," said Tellis, "there really have been a number of people who take meetings and hung around the hoop, but very little leadership in terms of taking on Black-owned companies." 

And then they faced a situation that a white company would never have had to contend with. A few years ago their company president recommended they apply for Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) certification, which informs the market that a company is Black-owned, in their case. It took a lot of back-and-forth deliberations. Would it matter in the market? Would it be better to just put their heads down and compete via the product's benefits, marketing and their collective business acumen? After all, they were satisfied that they were finding success because of the simple product's benefits, its taste and vibe. In the end, though, they decided to go ahead and get the MBE certification. Why not?

“And then we got dropped by our biggest customer because there was a buyer there who told someone he didn’t believe in affirmative action,” said Cook, who noted that Naturade had been in the store since 2008, long before Cook and Tellis purchased the company. “Unfortunately, sometimes that’s the reality of this country and sometimes doing business in this country. That was a big blow to the company. That was a gut check. And then we had to deal with it.”

Pivot, pass—and score!

That meant cutting operating expenses by 25%. It meant rethinking the company.

The executive team was comprised of Tellis and Cook, along with veteran natural products marketer Shannon Charles and chief financial officer Catherine Zhang, a sharp operator with a Wharton MBA to her credit.

Charles had been part of two significant buyout deals in the natural products business—NeoCell, a leading collagen company, was acquired in 2017 by WellNext, a portfolio company that also acquired Rainbow Light and a handful of other supplement category leaders. Charles then helped WellNext as it rebranded as NutraNext and repackaged the portfolio, which led to the acquisition by CPG giant Clorox in 2018. Charles—known as Miss Mayor of Natural in some industry quarters—provided the veteran natural products savvy that helped with the new product positioning Naturade thought was now needed.

The team decided to shift their marketing plan to focus on the natural channel.

Getting back to their vision and mission—a great-tasting product that helps people address diabetes and lose weight—proved to be the coin of the realm.

Another bold move was to reach out to former basketball stars Grant Hill—it surely helped that Hill, too, was a Duke University alum—and hoops legend Magic Johnson.

In his life after basketball, Magic Johnson has turned to the business world to assist Black businesses in much the same way he earned his legend on the court as one of only five players in the history of the NBA to have more than 10,000 career assists.

“Having Magic has been amazing,” said Tellis. “He’s raised private equity funds. He sees our business as a way to push for healthy outcomes in our community.”

That star power, coupled with an ongoing five-year dalliance with Costco, finally bore fruit—likely helped along by the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement that has awakened society’s eyes to the travails Blacks and Black-owned companies face every day.

In the latter half of 2020, Naturade has found traction in Whole Foods Market, in Target and now in Costco.

On Feb. 3, Magic will appear on the Jimmy Kimmel show where Tellis says he will talk up the Naturade brand.

The SKU that Naturade is bringing into Costco has Magic Johnson on the box, which contains the company’s Plant-Based Weight Loss High Protein Shake. Two scoops make up a serving, which supplies 25 grams of non-GMO plant protein (pea, potato, chlorella, chia, quinoa), six grams of fiber, 21 vitamins and minerals and is vegan, gluten-free, soy-free and dairy-free. It contains two branded ingredients, Super Citrimax for appetite control and ChromeMate for control over bloody sugar.


Also on Feb. 3, Tellis and Cook will have the opportunity to pitch the NFL Players Association on addressing weight management and diabetes.

New markets opening

“We turned it around in 2020,” said Cook. “All of a sudden people were leaning into and recognizing the disparities of opportunity of Black-owned companies, and it was able to benefit us.”

Cook asserts that Naturade did not get distribution just by virtue of being a Black-owned company.

“We got distribution because we actually had products that were proven to beat the best products out there when we were head-to-head in different outlets,” he said. “And people were open to trying to level the playing field.”

Any company would be giddy to consider the sales opportunities that getting into big-box retailers could provide. Cook says that after only four days in 40 Costco stores across 13 states and Washington, D.C., the company is at 85% of its weekly sales goal. The company is looking forward to reaching new consumers.

“There’s a huge opportunity gap for us,” said Tellis. “There’s the natural health-food brand, and then there’s the tried-and-true diabetic brand. There’s not that hot, sexy, cool brand in the middle that’s going to hit your 33- to 55-year-old diabetic that’s not your mom and not a tree hugger but someone in the middle. We think there’s more people like that than the other extremes.”

So it’s all coming together for Naturade, and Cook and Trellis are feeling the love. They are hoping to build off the unity that comes with fellowship and brotherhood—of a country coming together to hear the cries of disparities of justice that have been sitting on the Black community for far too long.

“We think people are already showing up for us, for the vision and mission—a product that tastes good, that’s clean, that’s plant-based, and can help you get your insulin under control and lose weight,” said Tellis. “No matter who you are or your politics, let’s have some fun again. Our goal is to bring our brand story, bring the flavor of a Black-owned company, bring it all into the industry in a fun and cool and inviting way with a dope product. And we think we’ve got that. We hope people pick up the product, enjoy the product, and support what we’re all about.”

Click here to watch an in-depth televised conversation with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Cook, Claude Tellis and Todd Runestad.

[email protected]: New study tempers soil carbon sequestration hopes | USDA finalizes hemp production regulations

Getty Images testing soil lab carbon agriculture

We’re told that healthy soil sequesters huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Scientists are finding that’s not always the case

There's a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the buzzy world of soil-based carbon sequestration methods. And now a new study is fueling scientists' fears that rising levels of atmospheric carbon and higher temperatures could "bring us closer to triggering an irreversible but destructive, carbon-generating feedback loop in the soil cycle." The findings suggest policymakers would do well to reign in their expectations regarding the effectiveness of these methods, and instead push for policies that are certain to cut emissions at the source, like mandating a reduction in fossil fuel use. The Counter reports.

USDA finalizes hemp production regulations

New rules out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture increase the percentage of THC allowed in growers' hemp to 1% and expand the window to harvest the crop following a successful THC testing. But the industry is still concerned about an outdated rule that only allows growers to partner with testing labs that are registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration, which has created a significant bottleneck for producers. The rules will go into effect March 22. Head to Modern Farmer for the details.

Biden might finally ban a pesticide that studies say poisoned kids' brains for decades

The pesticide chorpyrifos can be highly toxic to children, but current legislation doesn't prevent it from being used in farming operations (the chemical has been banned from household use since 2000). But all that is changing after President Biden issued an executive order to protect consumers and farmworkers alike against "exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides" and stated that as part of this move he would re-evaluate chlorpyrifos. Trump's Environmental Protection Agency maintained that, despite evidence showing that in high quantities the chemical could lead to respiratory paralysis and death, it needed to further evaluate the science before taking action. Not surprisingly, it was later uncovered that the largest producer of chlorpyrifos had donated $1 million to Trump's inaugural activities. Vice has the scoop.

The American grocery store is all about identity. And it's fueling a broken system

Where consumers shop for food and what they buy often says a great deal about their cultural identity; this is in part because grocers like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are targeting ever-tighter demographic segments. But zooming out on the whole system reveals that the industry relies on only three things: convenience, high quality and low prices. These are all in tension with one another, though, and improving upon one of them often comes at the cost of the other. NBC News delves into the harmful effects on the supply chain that result from a supercharged drive to serve food shoppers.

Local food movements won't save the world

Contrary to popular rhetoric, it's clear that local food movements aren't going to fix the food system. This is because localism opts to ignore the injustices of the global food system instead of taking steps to rectify these wrongs, which further harms those who have been most abused by the system. Localism would also increase wealth in affluent communities while taking away income from farmers who depend on imports for income and survival. Medium tells it like it is.

Black History Month arrives after a year of horrors, achievements

Getty Images black history month february

Many Americans and American businesses discovered some truths about social justice—or the lack thereof—and systemic racism in 2020.

We saw a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, kneel on the back of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, until he died. We learned more about the deaths of other Black people, such as Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain, and how the police were involved.

Across the country, we saw peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations turn to chaos and violence after the sun went down.

We saw business owners in Black- or Hispanic-majority neighborhoods wait for COVID-19-related federal assistance as businesses in majority-white locations quickly received Paycheck Protection Program loans.

But we've also seen progress. This year's Black History Month will be one of firsts:

  • Our first Black vice president, Kamala Harris.
  • Our first Black secretary of Defense, Retired Army General Lloyd Austin.
  • The first Black senator from Georgia, the Rev. Raphael Warnock.
  • A record number of Black representatives in Congress, 57, plus two Black delegates.  
  • The first Black woman to be a brigade commander at the U.S. Naval Academy, Sydney Barber.
  • The first Black American cardinal of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C.
  • The first Black man, Jason Wright, hired as team president in the National Football League.
  • The first Black female assistant coach, Jennifer King, hired in the NFL.

In the natural products industry—and in the wider food and beverage universe—many brands, retailers and industry leaders are increasing their commitment to diversity and inclusion.

KIND commits to supporting racial equality in education, food and more

KIND Healthy Snacks has formed a partnership with the National Collaborative for Health Equity (NCHE), an organization striving for racial justice to create a more equitable society, to address inequalities that BIPOC people face in justice, education, representation, and food and health care through these actions:

Adopting two historically Black colleges and universities, Florida A&M and North Carolina A&T State Universities; funding $100,000 in student scholarships; creating a program for students to earn internships, participate in career coaching, and network with industry leaders.

  • Releasing its second annual KIND Equality bar in support of the next generation of changemakers and donating 1 million bars to food insecure communities.
  • Donating $25,000 to support NCHE leaders addressing food security and injustice in local communities.
  • Adjusting KIND Kids packaging to be more inclusive and reflect America’s diversity.

Also, the KIND Foundation is donating $100,000 to racial justice organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Equal Justice Initiative.

Big investors in food want manufacturers, retailers to address inequities

In mid-December, investors who belong to the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility asked 21 food companies to consider how their production and marketing practices affect people of color.

The letter, which you can read here, was sent to food manufacturers Campbell's, Coca-Cola, Conagra, General Mills, Kellogg, Keurig Dr. Pepper, Kraft Heinz, Mondelez, Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever; retailers including Amazon, Kroger and Target; and restaurant chains including Dine Brands (Applebee's and IHOP), McDonald's and Yum! Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and The Habit Burger Grill).

The letter points out, with evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that system racism has contributed to the "adverse economic and health impacts on Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities in the U.S." during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It asks the companies for specific data on the percentage of their advertising budgets that each spends to promote healthy and unhealthy products by the targeted racial group, as well as "the impact of their digital-data practices on the marketing of unhealthy products and the disparate health and economic outcomes on Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities, as well as on children under the age of 14," as Bloomberg reported on Dec. 15.

In addition, the investors ask the companies to look at how they influence or engage public policy and work and begin working to ease practices that result in systemic racism.

Many investors who signed on to the letters are religious organizations. Others include Reynders, McVeigh Capital Management, LLC; Dana Investment Advisors; Change Finance, PBC; Natural Investments; and BMO Global Asset Management. In total, the 38 investors involved in this campaign represent more than $2 trillion in assets.

James Beard Foundation launches investment fund to support BIPOC food businesses

From farm to table, the food industry has a long history of racist practices and systems. The James Beard Foundation recognizes not only that systemic racism but its own role in that system.

The Foundation recently created the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans to help marginalized communities access capital so they can become leaders and business owners in the food industry.

"The James Beard Foundation is committed to celebrating, nurturing, and honoring chefs and other leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse, and sustainable for everyone," the Foundation's website states.

In addition to grants, the program creates partnerships to provide support in such areas as marketing, structuring business plans and negotiating contracts. More information is available here.

More from New Hope Network:

Podcast—Reframing failure and maintaining work-life balance in a chaotic world

3 principles businesses can practice to promote diversity, equity and inclusion

How brands can create a more inclusive supply chain

Natural products industry can do more to connect investors with BIPOC entrepreneurs

How Once Upon a Farm is taking action to improve diversity

Monitor: Coast-to-coast upheaval means brands should listen first

A conversation with Kareem Cook: How the natural products industry can better serve people of color

A conversation with GW Chew: How the natural products industry can better serve people of color

A conversation with Randy Jackson: How the natural products industry can better serve people of color

Monitor: Consumer attitudes on synthetic biology ingredients differ from natural products industry’s assumptions


Natural Products Industry Health Monitor, Jan. 28, 2020
A global lockdown might make weeks feel like months and months weigh like centuries, but business allows little room for ennui. As distracting as the daily inundation of the negative can be, the time to look forward is always now. In this feature, Informa Health and Nutrition sister properties provide that right-now-right-here update. Look for the Industry Health Monitor every other Friday to learn the major news that is affecting the natural products market immediately and the less obvious insights that could dictate where the market may struggle or thrive in the months to come.

Consider this: Natural consumers aren't scared off by synthetic biology

The conversation about ingredients produced through synthetic biology, or “syn-bio,” has barely begun even within the natural products industry, but a consumer survey conducted this week suggests assumptions inherent in that conversation could be wildly off target.

In short: Self-identified “natural” shoppers responding to the survey indicate they are more comfortable with less-than-natural ingredients than shoppers overall.

The New Hope Network survey defined synthetic biology as “a new genetic engineering technique producing nature-identical ingredients found in personal care, supplements, food and beverage products” and gathered responses from 1,000 consumers, 360 of whom said they primarily shop in the natural channel. Respondents were asked if they would purchase products made with synthetic biology ingredients and natural shoppers expressed more willingness in every single category. In some cases, the difference was substantial. For instance, 44% of all shoppers said they would purchase synthetic biology-ingredient-containing pet products while 69% of natural shoppers indicated they would. For supplements it was 53% for all shoppers and 73% for natural shoppers.

Attitudes around labeling were more evenly shared. The percentage of natural shoppers and all shoppers who want products made with synthetic biology ingredients was 56%. But natural shoppers were more likely to agree with the statement: “I would not be concerned about syn-bio ingredients and will continue buying products as normal.”

The survey results may come as a surprise to many in the natural products industry, which was largely founded on an opposition to synthetic ingredients; however, the takeaways here are not simple.

For starters, anybody looking at this survey should remember that it’s just one survey and it was deployed online. People could also take issue with the definition respondents saw, though it’s worth noting that 70% of respondents claimed they knew what synthetic biology was before they saw the definition given.

However one views these results, they are at the very least cause for more research. Synthetic biology is already transforming many industries and could be the next GMO for natural products. Understanding what consumers understand in this case is essential.

Though it’s not addressed in the survey, synthetic biology may arrive in the public debate with less baggage, or at least different baggage, than GMOs. Companies like Impossible Foods have put synthetic biology forward as a climate-friendly alternative to animal protein. People in the dietary supplement industry contend that synthetic biology  could take the pressure off rare plants gathered in the wild. Such claims could affect consumer perceptions and will undoubtedly shape whatever debate develops.

In the end the results of the survey may appear surprising, but perhaps they should surprise no one. Synthetic biology is a complex issue and raises questions that are not easily answered. As such, consumer sentiment is likely far from fixed. Much of the conversation in the media has been about benefits—no animals were harmed in the making of this burger—and the downsides could appear more hypothetical at this point.

But consumers are not the only ones who need to consider where they stand on synthetic biology. Brands, producers, service providers, trade agencies and lawyers might also need to assess their position. New Hope Network is still examining and defining synthetic biology as it relates to natural products and is developing a position on their use.

This survey doesn’t define where the conversation is now, much less where it might be headed.

Know this: Interest in better products is steady for consumers and investors

Consumer behavior indexes measure dramatic shifts in consumer behaviors as we march through COVID that is compared to a 2017 “normal” benchmark before COVID-19 emerged. These indexes are assessed through monthly surveys of how consumers perceive their shopping behaviors. 

The natural products industry investment index measures dramatic shifts in investment activity as we march through COVID-19 that is compared to a 2019 “normal” benchmark before COVID-19 emerged. Nutrition Capital Network monitors monthly financial activity in the natural products industry. 

Enjoy this: The secret ingredient

Consumer input on controversial ingredients can mean different things to different people. 

soylent chips


Synthetic biology test could force the natural products industry to define its position

Getty Images sythetic meat

Editor's note: This article was featured in the Nutrition Business Journal's Guest Editor Issue and was edited by Karen Howard of the Organic and Natural Health Association

Meatless Impossible Burgers that “bleed” just like the real deal. Creamy dairy-free ice cream made with Perfect Day’s nonanimal whey protein. Dietary supplements containing “nature-identical” astaxanthin, resveratrol or collagen made from fermented yeast, bacteria or other microorganisms.

These and many other tech-spawned products have flooded the market in recent years, even penetrating the natural products industry. They are often touted as the next frontier of food and supplements, positioned as perfectly safe and more environmentally responsible than their counterparts made the old-fashioned way. Now, new testing technology that quickly tags ingredients that were touted as “nature identical” could force the natural product industry to declare a position.

But what the companies pushing these products often don’t disclose—at least not in clear language—is that they are made with synthetic biology, synbio for short, or genetic engineering 2.0. Synbio involves using CRISPR and other gene-editing tools to reengineer microorganisms to generate products through fermentation that they’d never produce naturally. Prime example: heme, the blood dripping from those Impossible Burgers.

“Ultimately, synbio is an attempt to re-create something that occurs in nature by using microorganisms to act as mini-factories,” explains Dana Perls, food and technology program manager at Friends of the Earth. “The problem is we don’t understand enough about how nature works to do it in a way that we can be sure is safe for human health and the environment and sustainable for small farmers.”

Despite biotech and agribusiness’s insistence that synbio is safe and eco-friendly, nobody knows for sure whether that’s true. Unlike first-generation GMOs—primarily plants modified with DNA from another species—this new form of gene editing is totally unregulated. USDA and FDA limit their oversight of genetically engineered products to those containing foreign DNA, which synbio ingredients typically do not have. Thus, the DARK Act of 2018, which mandates labeling of “bioengineered” foods, is of little use.

“New biotech companies are trying to pull the wool over FDA and USDA by claiming to be making ‘nature-identical’ products,” Perls says. “But these products are not natural and are far from identical—they are genetically engineered.”

Yet, unencumbered by regulations and buoyed by billions in VC funding, synbio has proliferated unchecked. It has quickly become omnipresent in food and beverage and is increasingly sneaking into dietary supplement supply chains.

According to Hans Eisenbeis, director of marketing and communications for the Non-GMO Project, synbio products already commercialized or in development include vanillin and other flavorings, several colorants, CBD, collagen, plant-based proteins, dairy proteins, vitamins, omegas, probiotics and dairy milk proteins. John Fagan, Ph.D., chairman and chief scientist at Health Research Institute–HRI Labs, adds astaxanthin, resveratrol and squalene to the growing list.

Consumers, the vast majority of whom want GMOs labeled, remain mostly in the dark about synbio. Many food and dietary supplement manufacturers are also unaware of the true identity of ingredients they’re purchasing.

This lack of transparency around synbio—as well as biotech’s seeming lack of ethical considerations and disregard for potential environmental, economic and social ramifications—has spurred opponents into action. A growing coalition of scientists, technology-monitoring organizations and natural products industry stakeholders are working hard to spread the truth about synbio, hoping to convince industry to call it out as genetic engineering and help steel supply chains against further infiltration.

Is synthetic biology safe?

While synbio raises countless concerns, perhaps the most pressing is safety. “These ingredients and products have not been subjected to any long-term toxicity tests to determine their safety for human consumption,” Eisenbeis says. “Furthermore, in the U.S, evidence for GRAS determinations is compiled by the developer, not by the regulatory agency. As we have seen in the past, much of the research conducted by developers revolves around the desired outcome, not necessarily any ancillary changes or additional inputs present in the final product.”

Those lingering additional inputs, he adds, should negate any “nature identical” claim. More gravely, they also could pose significant health risks.

“When you soup up a microorganism, there can be secondary reactions that produce toxic materials that can be very harmful,” Fagan says. “Hopefully, you can purify the [desired compound] away from those toxins. But there is no certainty of that, and there is a significant risk that the contaminant could be present in significant amounts and create health problems.”

In fact, this scary side effect has played out before, says Fagan, most notably with the eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS) epidemic of 1989. Japanese petrochemical company Showa Denko had engineered a microorganism to produce tryptophan for sleep supplements—but it inadvertently generated several hundred mystery compounds along with it. Those contaminants sickened thousands of Americans with EMS, a rare condition affecting the muscles, lungs and skin. In the end, epidemiologists linked 1,500 cases directly to supplements containing Showa Denko’s synbio tryptophan.

“This is a prime example of what can happen when you make a microorganism do something it was not designed to do,” Fagan says. “Toxins can be generated, posing a health risk, whether it’s vanillin, resveratrol, astaxanthin or any other compounds. Because the U.S. government is not scrutinizing the safety of these things in a careful way, there is nothing protecting the consumer.”

Synbio and the fate of farmers

Also concerning is the threat synthetic biology poses to farming communities around the world. “Some of these purported ‘nature-identical’ products will likely have significant impacts on the communities currently responsible for producing natural products,” Eisenbeis says. “Because the synbio production process is generally more cost effective than traditional harvesting or manufacturing practices, synbio can render these practices obsolete, eliminating existing knowledge bases and economic livelihoods, especially in indigenous and rural farming communities.”

Synbio vanillin is particularly troubling. “Vanilla beans are the livelihood of farmers in five or six countries where that is the most important cash crop,” Fagan says. “Having a cheap substitute jeopardizes their livelihoods, so there are social and human rights impacts to this.”

However, synbio substitutes are peddled as ways to consume fewer resources and preserve agricultural lands for other uses—arguments that can sound pretty good to a buyer, Fagan acknowledges. But what they don’t reveal, he notes, is that an entire country may lose its main economic source because of it.

“This begs the question of who is benefitting and profiting from these technologies,” Perls says. “Is this a world we want to live in, where we remove the livelihood of farmers and families to benefit a couple of food tech companies? Or should our food system support health, safety and the environment for all people?”

Identifying the synbio makers

As for who is pushing synbio, the Non-GMO Project is currently monitoring more than 400 companies developing GMOs for the food and supplements industry—a 250% increase since 2016. “Producers include many of the same agrochemical corporations behind traditional genetically modified crops, as well as an explosion of new biotechnology companies around the world,” says Eisenbeis. “Synbio is infiltrating the supply chain at every step, as inputs and all the way to finished products, and being marketed to manufacturers and directly to consumers.”

Notable purveyors include consumer-facing brands like Impossible Foods, the startup accelerator IndieBio, and B2B ingredient sellers such as Perfect Day, Ginkgo Bioworks and Evolva.

While some synbio producers disclose the genesis of their offerings, plenty do not. “These products are often sold to supplement and food producers without full transparency about what they actually are,” Fagan says. “They’ll say something was produced via fermentation, and that’s as deep as it goes. There are wiggle words they exploit to make things sound better than they are.”

Fagan fears that supplement and food manufacturers are taking the bait, not entirely understanding their choices. “They know something is different, but the price difference is so drastic that they think, why not switch to this cheaper source?” he says. “Especially if it is guaranteed to be 99% pure.” Some ingredient distributors and even manufacturers, Fagan adds, will “spike” products with synbio so they can continue claiming to use a natural ingredient—even though, in reality, it is predominantly genetically engineered.

But Fagan insists ingredient suppliers aren’t always to blame for synbio’s infiltration, either. “It’s not necessarily that they’re being deceptive,” he says. “The details are often so technical that suppliers are not even completely clear about what they are purchasing as raw materials and offering to others.”

Can synbio be stopped?

With so little transparency and so much deception throughout the supply chain, identifying products made with synbio is tricky—but not impossible. To this end, the Non-GMO Project, plays a key role. Unlike USDA Organic certification, Non-GMO Project verification requires companies to trace their inputs all the way to the source. And unlike federal regulators, the group’s definition of GMOs covers synbio.

“We have a full-time research team dedicated to identifying and monitoring the worldwide development and commercialization of the products of traditional GMOs and new genetic engineering techniques, including synbio,” Eisenbeis says. “We regularly update the Non-GMO Project Standard to ensure that new GMOs, such as synbio, are prohibited, ensuring shoppers can continue to trust the Butterfly. The Standard is supported by meticulous supply tracking and affidavit submittals, as well as careful quality assurance practices.”

According to Eisenbeis, 54% of North American consumers already recognize the butterfly stamp and consider Non-GMO Project Verified the most trusted on-pack label for GMO avoidance. Therefore, having assurance that the seal also covers synbio will be invaluable as more genetically engineered components enter the market.

“NGP is proving to be incredibly important to hold the line on this, as one of the few groups that is well funded, aggressive and well informed about who is doing what,” says Alan Lewis, vice president of government affairs, stockholder relations and organic compliance at Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage. “While others are just shrugging and buying whatever ingredients are available, NGP is tightening its standards and making it more difficult to get the Butterfly.”

New synthetic biology detection tool

Biotech companies boast that synbio ingredients mirror nature so precisely that they are indistinguishable from the real deal. “That is just bunk,” Fagan says. “We published a paper showing we could detect them—and very effectively.”

Recently, he and colleagues developed a testing method that can identify and quantify synbio components previously rendered undetectable. Published in MDPI’s open-access journal Foods in September 2020, this new test got press in Europe last year but has largely flown under the radar stateside.

To explain the method, Fagan uses the example of vanillin, derived from the vanilla bean, which contains many other compounds that contribute to its flavor. “When you extract vanillin from the bean, some of these other micro-components come with it,” he says. “Similarly, in synbio, even though it may be 98% pure, there will still be a small percentage of other compounds present that are not present in natural vanilla.”

Using mass spectrometry, one can use the tiny sub-compounds to generate a fingerprint unique to a natural extract, a fingerprint unique to synthetic vanillin and a fingerprint unique to synbio vanillin. “Then when comparing two unknown samples, if the fingerprint for synbio is there, we know it is present,” he says. This method can also detect when natural extracts are spiked with synthetic or synbio material.

Fagan believes his test, available for anyone to use, can benefit companies at many levels of the supply chain. “Certainly, ingredient distributors who want to make a strong claim that the material they are offering is genuine and very high quality would want the test,” he says. “If food and supplement manufacturers have concerns, they could use it too.”

Synthetic biology incites natural products industry into action

In many ways, the synbio issue has caught the natural products industry flat-footed. There is also some disagreement as to whether synbio is such a bad thing. “There is definitely a generational issue in the industry,” Lewis says. “Old-school industry founders and keepers of the flame tend to be much more concerned about this. They are well aware that this is what they were fighting against all along, just under a new name.”

But Lewis believes industry must strengthen its resistance to ensure its very survival. “As an industry that supposedly believes in working within natural boundaries and laws, we are incredibly weak at countering the synbio narrative that it will fix all the problems,” he says. “If we don’t stand up and say we will judge the value of how each technology is applied, we will end up without a natural products industry.”

To stem the adoption of synbio, industry first must call it out for what it is. “Stakeholders must agree on a definition for new genetic engineering and that the outcomes are in fact GMOs,” Eisenbeis says. “Then industry can work to keep them out of the supply chain by putting in place checkpoints throughout.” This will involve setting standards that extend beyond those covering traditional GMOs.

Individual companies can do their part by knowing how their ingredients are produced and from where they are sourced. “Companies need to be very clear about what is acceptable in final products,” Perls says. “If they are trying to be truly natural and sustainable, they must ask very specific questions of ingredient suppliers and ask that they not be offered any ingredients derived from genetic engineering.”

Finally, consumer-facing brands must be transparent with shoppers about their ingredients’ integrity. To that end, seeking Non-GMO Project verification, along with USDA Organic certification, is highly valuable.

“People are very clear that they want real food and transparency,” Perls says. “We saw what happened with the first generation of GMOs where companies had to rush to remove them from their products.”

Indeed, once Campbell, Nestlé and other big food corporations embraced consumers’ desire for GMO labeling, several defected from the Grocery Manufacturers Association citing its resistance to transparency. Ultimately, this brought GMA to its knees, forcing the 100-year-old trade association to regroup and rebrand. If consumers discover the built-on-trust natural products industry isn’t standing against synbio, or at least being transparent about it, it could face a similar crisis.

“The writing is on the wall,” says Perls. “These are genetically engineered products, or derived from genetic engineering, and should be labeled as such.”

This article was featured in the Nutrition Business Journal's Guest Editor Issue. It was edited by Karen Howard of the Organic and Natural Health Association.

[email protected]: How Big Food influenced the new dietary guidelines | Roadblocks to organic oatmilk

Getty Images Oat Milk

Questions remain about Big Food's influence on the new dietary guidelines

The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which influence policymakers and educators alike, largely failed to incorporate any of the expert suggestions made by the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee when they were released in December. Why, you ask? A story old as time: subtle corporate influence. As Civil Eats puts it, "Prohibiting industry and trade groups from nominating participants to the advisory committee, establishing a more transparent process around the committee members’ disclosure of financial and industry ties—including speaking fees and research funding—could change the outcome ... But all that only makes a difference if the officials at HHS and USDA, who determine the final guidelines, are also free of industry ties."

Why are there few organic oatmilks?

Only a handful of oatmilk brands have achieved USDA organic status, which is surprising considering how many studies have demonstrated a high glyphsate content in conventionally grown oats. What it comes down to is slow growth in terms of organic farming acreage that hasn't kept up with growing consumer interest and demand. As a result of this relative scarcity, many popular oatmilk brands have opted to do third-party testing for glyphosate content. Head to Forbes for more details.

Online shoppers accidentally buy too much

At-home cooks are getting creative with botched grocery deliveries (think 200 lemons instead of 20) by trying out new recipes and sharing the results with their communities. The Wall Street Journal explains how the online ordering audience now consists of all age ranges and levels of technology savvy—likely the predominant driver behind many of these excessive orders—as the need to stock up on staples with minimal human interaction persists.

Just 2% of US teens eat recommended amount of vegetables

A new government survey shows that only 2% of U.S. teens are getting their recommended daily dose of vegetables. Fruit is only mildly more popular, with 7% of high schoolers getting enough. Experts are discouraged but not surprised. U.S. News reports.

Meet the founder behind the buzzy wellness brand that's now at Target

The Black-owned wellness brand Golde began with a single product, a turmeric spice latte blend, but has expanded quickly to include other latte blends, skin care products, matcha powder and a rechargeable whisk for optimal drink frothiness. The Kitchn interviewed co-founder Trinity Mouzon Wofford about the barriers to starting a superfood business as a young Black woman and why Golde is striking a chord with Gen Z (hint: It has fun, colorful packaging).

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Where’s the analogue meat market headed? – Fodder podcast

Danny O’Malley saw the future when he hit the streets years ago to educate and sell an innovative new product—Beyond Meat.

The plant-based burger excited his customers, and they wanted more before the analogue had made it to their menus.

Spotting a growth path, O’Malley left the growing company to birth his own, Before the Butcher. The company offers the butcher counter and more in plant-based form: deli slices, grounds, shreds, chunks and tips and, of course, burgers.

In this episode of the Fodder podcast, we chat about:

  • The rise of flexitarians and meat reducers.
  • Who is leading—and buying into—the plant-based meat revolution.
  • Where the plant-based market could grow.
  • Why 2020 will mark a pivotal time in the analogue meat movement.
  • And why the market already is very different for plant-based entrepreneurs today.

“We are still on the tip of the iceberg, where things are going to continue to trickle down in a very, very big way, and will continue to grow this segment of the industry, which is good for all of us,” O’Malley said.

Would he jump in today? Hear what he has to say in this episode of Fodder.

Listen to the Fodder podcast

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This is the Fodder podcast powered by New Hope Network's Esca Bona platform. You can find the Fodder podcast here on, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Play and other places you find your podcasts.

Have an "innovation for good food" idea we should consider for the Fodder podcast? Want to offer feedback on our latest episode? Email us at [email protected].

2020 Fodder podcast underwriters

Small, extra-small and private label CPG manufacturers gained market share in 2020

Getty Images shopper covid-19 face mask

New research from IRI has found that small and extra-small CPG manufacturers' and retailers' own brands gained U.S. market share over larger players during 2020. Of the CPG industry's $933 billion of total U.S. sales in measured channels in 2020, large manufacturers collectively lost 1.3 share points, or $12.1 billion in sales, to smaller players due to channel shifts, supply constraints and category shifts. 

In 2020 the CPG industry grew 10.3%, with smaller manufacturers (including players with annual measured channel sales of less than $1 billion) collectively capturing nearly one-third of that growth, and private label products accounting for roughly 18% of growth. These impressive growth rates resulted in smaller manufacturers and private label products gaining 1.1 and 0.2 share points, respectively, from larger manufacturers (companies with measured channel sales exceeding $5.5 billion annually), which captured 34.1% of total CPG growth in 2020. Large manufacturers have lost market share in each of the past five years, but still represent 46.7% of total U.S. sales in measured channels. 

"The consumer shift toward smaller manufacturers and private label products is something that IRI has been documenting for several years, and we saw the trend accelerate during the COVID-19 pandemic," explained Dr. Krishnakumar S. Davey, president of strategic analytics for IRI. "Many large manufacturers were not able to meet the surge in demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in the second quarter when they lost most share to smaller players who seized on this opportunity. Several brands attracted a number of new buyers as in-home consumption surged. Large manufacturers fared relatively better in the third quarter, but still lost significant share (-1.3 points vs. year ago as compared vs. -1.9 share points vs. year ago in the second quarter). The fourth quarter saw some improvement and reversion to historical trends (-0.8 points vs. year ago). Many extra-small manufacturers are mostly new entrants to the market into supply-constrained categories (e.g., soap, hand sanitizers, home health care kits)." 

As consumers hunkered down with mobility restrictions, growth in the convenience channel—which is dominated by large manufacturers—lagged other channels. Softness in the convenience channel alone accounted for 0.5 share points of decline for large manufacturers overall. The convenience channel, which was affected the most initially, is recovering, and is expected to bounce back as consumer mobility increases later this year. 

Smaller manufacturers gained market share in nine out of 10 departments, except for the home care department. Smaller manufacturers accelerated their shares in beverage alcohol, frozen food and center store food categories with products that catered to distinct needs, even as consumers sought variety and change of pace. Smaller manufacturers also gained share in general merchandise, health and beauty departments. Within nonedible categories, small manufacturers playing in high-demand categories, such as hygiene, personal care and health and wellness, saw high growth. As consumers spent more time at home, small manufacturers in breakfast categories, frozen fruit, snacks and shelf-stable products saw growth. Many smaller manufacturers took advantage of the opportunity that arose from larger manufacturers not being able to meet the surge in demand for paper products and hygiene-related products. The trend also holds true in edible categories, where consumers shifted toward smaller or niche brands, or picked up whatever was available on the shelf. 

IRI's analysis of e-commerce data also shows similar trends as many smaller manufacturers, particularly in shelf-stable food and beverage products, pet care and personal grooming products, grew much faster in this channel, which grew the most in 2020. 

"Looking ahead, we anticipate that consumer mobility will increase substantially over the next few months, and the convenience channel will bounce back as economic activity, especially construction-related activities, improves, providing a strong tailwind for large manufacturers," added Davey. "While some of the 2020 consumption trends will continue with consumers working from home at least part-time, away-from-home consumption will continue to gain back lost share. We expect smaller and mid-sized players to continue to gain share from large manufacturers." 

Source: IRI

Nicole Sopko elected president of Plant Based Foods Association board of directors

plant based food association logo

Nicole Sopko, vice president of Upton’s Naturals and an ethical vegan for over 20 years, has been elected president of the board of directors at the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA). Proud to be a founding board member of the organization, she is committed to fostering growth and collaboration within the industry and working to further establish PBFA as a leading voice of the plant-based food industry and advocate for its now 180 members.

nicole-uptons-naturals.jpgPBFA works to address challenges faced by plant-based food companies and remove obstructions that arise as the category grows. Independently owned Upton’s Naturals, which Nicole runs with her partner Dan Staackmann, has been a powerful force behind this mission by teaming with the PBFA and the Institute of Justice to fight unreasonable food labeling lawsuits that affect companies making meat alternatives. By challenging and being proactive against these unjust laws early, including cases in Mississippi and most recently Oklahoma, Upton’s Naturals and the PBFA hopes to create an easier path forward for the entire industry. 

At the helm of a plant-based and vegan food business, Sopko shares in much of what PBFA members experience and the obstacles surmounted in the work they do. Upton’s Naturals bootstrapped its way to success after bringing the first flavored seitan to market. Also known for launching the first pre-seasoned, heat-and-serve jackfruit in North America and Europe, the brand recently expanded into a new production space that's six times the size and has introduced Liberation Donuts, the first vegan-owned donut shop in Chicago.

Said Sopko, “Awareness and demand for plant-based foods continues to grow and PBFA stands ready to support that growth. I will work closely with the board to advance our endeavors with retailers, e-commerce, foodservice, distribution, lawmakers and regulators. In addition, in my new role as president of the PBFA board of directors, I am driven and dedicated to uplifting the voices of our members and doing all that I can to create an organization that supports the strength of our community.”

Source: Upton's Naturals