Hardly a day goes by without some trendy new diet or some trendy new food product that supposedly will give us more energy, help us lose weight, make us more beautiful, or any one of a number of other claims. In reality of course those fad diets mostly result in people losing a little and then gaining a lot more. Those food products are either just massive amounts of caffeine or have no effect whatsoever. And meanwhile we’re told if we eat “organic” and gluten-free we’ll be treading the path of light and purity.
Marketing people know three things. One: most people aren’t very smart. Two: most people don’t know very much. Three: therefore most people are very easily manipulated.
Isn’t it a curious thing that in a world with so many “guaranteed” diets and so many “healthy options” the vast majority of us are becoming more and more obese and lackluster? Makes you wonder if all those marketing claims might be a little misleading…
Marketing people know that the road to success is to churn out products that are almost-but-not-quite identical to other products already on the market, then add a little something to create the illusion of difference. In this way the consumer can readily identify the offering and be swayed by the notion that this new product is magically superior in some way and thus should be scooped up and placed in the shopping cart. And as the vast majority of food products are basically sugar, fat, salt, stabilizers, colorings, and artificial flavors, it’s not difficult to see why we’re all being killed slowly by what we’re consuming.
No one is forcing us to buy these products. We buy them because we’re hardwired to like sugar, fat, and salt. Most of our evolutionary history as a species was back on the African savanna and in the primordial forests of Eurasia, places where food was scarce and every calorie counted. Sugar and fat have loads of calories so we’re hardwired to want them. The problem is, today we’re surrounded by more food than we could need in a thousand lifetimes but we can’t turn off those biological switches. So we throw junk down our throats and suffer the consequences.
There are a few rare exceptions to this scenario, and I’d like to tell you about one of them.
A few years back I founded a startup that created an innovative new category of food. We called it “cognitive nutrition” because the food products we were making contained a range of micro-nutrients that had been shown in many clinical studies to be essential for good mental function. Our key insight was that while the clinical studies focused on single compounds, we reasoned that any single compound on its own would have only a small impact on mental function because overall the brain would still be struggling from lack of all the other essential compounds. By way of analogy, if your body needs protein and calcium and vitamins in order to grow and you’re not getting anywhere near enough of any of these things, and then you only increase the calcium, you may see a small improvement in growth but it won’t be huge because the other key things are still missing.
What we discovered when we reviewed the scientific literature was that there is strong evidence for about fifteen micro-nutrients that are all essential for good mental performance. You’d think that a healthy balanced diet would provide all of these micro-nutrients but sadly you’d be wrong. The fact is, modern farming practices and the standard western diet combine to mean that few of us get what we need. The result: our memories aren’t as good as they could be, our reaction times are slower, our problem-solving skills are less sharp than they ought to be, and we get tired more quickly than we should when using our brains.
The obvious solution was to create a food product that contained the right quantities of all the fifteen essential micro-nutrients and then subject it to a proper double-blind placebo-controlled clinical study. So that’s what we did. The results surprised us.
The study tested multiple areas of mental performance using standardized computer test programs to ensure there was no variability arising from the way the tests were delivered. The clinical study, overseen by one of the most eminent professors in the field of nutrition science, tested working memory, short-term memory, speed of response, accuracy of response, ability to respond to complex tasks, and rate of fatigue.
We thought we’d see improvements averaging around 30% for the experimental group (the folks who consumed the prototype product containing the micro-nutrients) versus the control group (the folks who consumed a calorie-equivalent placebo product). This seemed a reasonable hope based on the many clinical studies we’d used as input to our formulation process. The actual results at the end of the 90-day study, however, were not what we’d expected.
What the results actually showed us were astonishing. We saw improvements ranging between 100% and 500% across all the various tests. In other words, the folk who were consuming our brain-enhancing product were out-performing regular folk by an astonishing amount. Even more gratifying was the fact that the gap between the two groups didn’t diminish over the course of the study. This was a very unusual outcome because practically every stimulant used to boost mental performance becomes less and less effective over time as the body adjusts to its effects. So-called nootropics as well as drugs like Ritalin are well-known for producing an initial benefit and then becoming less and less effective as time passes. Our product, on the other hand, showed no signs of becoming less effective as the weeks went by.
We think this is because artificial stimulants “overdrive” the brain temporarily, which causes the brain to adjust its production and retention of neurotransmitters (mainly serotonin, acetylcholine, dopamine). Our product on the other hand simply provided what the brain needs on a daily basis but sadly doesn’t get from our modern diet even when we believe we’re eating healthy.
So what did it all mean?
It meant that for the very first time, here was a product that schoolkids could safely eat and experience tremendous benefits: increased focus and concentration and better memory. Here was a product that older people could safely eat that helps stave off memory decline and confusion. And here was a product that working adults could safely eat in order to be sharper in the office without recourse to the terrible over-caffeination that’s too frequently a part of people’s daily routine.
It’s worth noting that our prototype product was made entirely from natural ingredients like nuts, seeds, cocoa, and eggs. We used some well-known baking tricks to make the product taste sweet enough without having recourse to lots of sugar, so it was tasty and desirable — because who wants to eat something that doesn’t taste great? And we stayed away from stabilizers, preservatives, colorings, and flavorings. So it was a very healthy product as well as delivering amazing mental performance benefits.
At this point you’re probably wondering why we didn’t conquer the world. I mean, what’s not to like? A healthy product that improves mental functioning, with no side-effects and no harmful additives. Who wouldn’t want that?
And it’s true that when we ramped up production and began to sell limited amounts of product in various health stores around the San Francisco Bay Area the response was tremendous. People would come into a store at 10 am and sample the product. They’d buy some to take home. Three hours later they’d be back with their friends, having experienced the benefits far sooner than they’d expected. We sold out of some stores so quickly we had to call in our baking staff to make more product for same-day delivery.
Then we ran into the wall. We needed to raise capital to create our own manufacturing capability. But the food investors couldn’t understand the science and couldn’t imagine a product that wasn’t simply an existing product with snazzier packaging. They fixated on the color of our wrappers or the tear-off strip. They wanted us to be a candy bar or an energy drink or a coconut water product, because that was all they could understand. Meanwhile the venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road all became customers but they didn’t want to invest in an industry they were unfamiliar with. Sure, Soylent was an investment but it was aimed at programmers sitting at their keyboards for 48 hours straight. We were talking about something aimed at everyone, and that was beyond the remit of the guys who invest other people’s money in the hope of striking it lucky with the next Facebook or Google. If it wasn’t web-centric, the venture guys just couldn’t get there. And as for crowdfunding… turns out those well-known websites are happy if you want to make candy or jam or cakes but they won’t let you start a campaign if you’re trying to make a healthy product that delivers tangible benefits. We never did learn why.
So we were in the very peculiar position of having a product that was flying off the shelves and creating enormous customer loyalty but being unable to raise capital to get to the point where we could be profitable.
Sadly this story ends as you may now expect: we had to shut down the company. In the intervening years I’ve tried to interest food companies in the idea but without success. Although large food companies like to claim they want to make healthy foods, foods with benefits, and so-called “functional foods” the reality is that their standard formula works well for them: cheap inputs to make junk products that fit into existing categories so they can be easily positioned in the market.
And that’s why the food we buy is so often so very bad for us. The barriers to making and selling products that deliver tangible benefits are very high and in most cases, ours included, insurmountable.
So if there’s anyone out there who likes the idea of resurrecting perhaps the only food product to be developed in the last few decades that actually is healthy and truly does provide astonishing benefits, let me know. It really could make an amazing difference.