Dr. Taylor Wallace: Food and the Biotech Revolution

On this edition of The Inc. Tank, Christina talks with Dr. Taylor Wallace about how the Biotech Revolution is bringing about a new level of personalized nutrition and how it could have a profound effect on the global food supply.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT:

Christina: Hello, I’m Christina Elson and on this edition of the “Inc. Tank,” we’ll discuss how the biotech revolution is bringing about a new level of personalized nutrition and could have a profound effect on the global food supply. My guest today, Dr. Taylor Wallace is the CEO of Think Healthy Group which utilizes research to create a healthier generation of consumers around the globe. Good morning, Taylor. It’s so great to have you here with me on the “Inc. Tank” and I’m really looking forward to our discussion today around food science.

Taylor: Thanks for having me.

Christina: Let’s just jump into a couple of big themes that we’re gonna address today. One of the things that we were talking about is the idea that because of technology, we’re getting to the point where we can do such a phenomenal job really detecting on the individual level, some of the ways that people both respond to nutrition and we can also do that in a way through looking at food, but let’s start with individuals. So, what are some of the things we’re learning about nutrition, like individuals in nutrition that we want to really think about?

Taylor: I think everything’s going personalized. You see the 23andMes out there. I just bought a biome where you can assess your own microbiome in your gut just by, you know, either a finger prick if it’s 23andMe, or you know, a fecal sample, if it’s the biome. I just bought another one of the kits where you can prick your finger and give them a blood spot and they’ll tell you whether you have an intolerance to about 150 different foods. So, some really neat technologies out there still kind of riding like the regulatory line because I don’t think FDA’s kind of figured out how we’re gonna like regulate this when people are self-diagnosing with different disease states and things like that. So, if you remember 23andMe, got dinged by FDA, and so now you have to actually go in and look at your own genetic sequence and type it into Google and figure out what the different single nucleotide polymorphisms or morphs in your own DNA mean. But I definitely think it’s moving that way. And one of the areas that I think is really exciting is in the dietary supplement space. And what I see in the next 5, 10 years, probably, even sooner than that, is a company coming out and saying, “Okay, let’s do a blood spot test. Let’s look at your DNA and let’s figure out exactly what level of each nutrient that you need either from the diet,” or “Here’s a customized multivitamin for you.” I think there’s really wild possibilities out there.

Christina: From the business perspective, this is very interesting because we have a lot of different companies that are investing in perfecting different techniques. So, on the one hand, we’re talking about allergies, so doing a spit test and figuring out what you’re allergic to, doing biome testing. So, from a business perspective, it’s still right now the role of the individual to sort of bring all this information together in a way that can be used for a really individual diagnosis and so, who could help someone make that diagnosis, like really sift through all this information, understand the outcomes of the different tests and then think through like, “Well, what does this mean for me?”

Taylor: Well, I think that role is really gonna fall on doctors and medical professionals and I think that’s gonna take a whole different level of training, especially when it comes to nutrition because doctors, as you know, are not trained in nutrition. They don’t even take a nutrition 101 course…

Christina: No, I didn’t know that.

Taylor: …in their medical training. So, it’s actually quite scary sometimes what doctors will tell you about nutrition. My dad goes to two different doctors, has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and one doctor tells him, “Take a multivitamin. Take as many dietary supplements as you want. If you get too much, you’ll just pee everything out,” which is scary because we know vitamin toxicities exist. And then, on the other hand, the other doctor tells him, “Don’t take a multivitamin, it’ll give you cancer.” And so, that just kind of shows, you know, the broad spectrum of, you know, doctors get a lot of their information on nutrition from TV shows, different magazines, things like that. They’re not necessarily trained in that field. And that’s really where I think the dietician comes into play.

Christina: Let’s just like do some term definition because we’re talking about allergies, right, which are I might have an allergic reaction to certain kinds of food or medicine. Or I might have a genetic disposition towards something, or I might have some sort of unique microbiome. And then we were talking about polymorphism, you know, that concept too. So, just talk us a little bit through like these different kinds of areas and what is it, right?

Taylor: So, the reason it’s really hard is because, you know, when you have a 23andMe test or, you know, any one of these genetic tests, they have to be approved by FDA. So, you know, if you have the alleles for Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, FDA actually has to validate that tool that you’re using to diagnose that. And so, as you know, these genetic tests are telling you about hundreds of different diseases and what predisposes you to them and just because you have the genetic sequence doesn’t necessarily mean you’re gonna get it. So, you know, you can have the genes for breast cancer and never develop breast cancer. I think of genes as kind of like a light switch, you know? And nutrition plays a really important role in that because a lot of times when you have a high saturated fat diet or a high sugar diet, something like that, you can turn those light switches on that you don’t want on. But if you have appropriate nutrition, you can keep that off and keep those genes down-regulated. That’s why nutrition is so important from a prevention perspective. When it comes to the genetic testing, it gets hard because I can tell you off a genetic test what microbes you have in your system. But with the current regulations, I can’t really tell you what those microbes could actually do to you long term. So, we know that like high levels of E. coli are present in people with Crohn’s disease, but I can’t diagnose you with Crohn’s disease based upon your E. coli levels, you know, based upon a consumer test. So, it’s getting really tricky and what companies are saying and consumers have to kind of go fishing for their own information.

The other area that’s really neat in the nutrition side of things when it comes to these genetic testings are, you know, everybody handles nutrients differently and we think like, “Oh, I’ve gotta get my calcium 1200 milligrams a day,” because that’s what’s on the food label as your daily value. But that’s not necessarily true for everybody. If you’re a smaller female, you probably need less. If you’re a larger male, you probably need more. If you’re working out, you know you’re metabolizing nutrients, you know, a lot more efficiently than somebody who’s sedentary. Genetics mean everything. And I’ve been doing a lot of work in the area of choline. And choline is a B vitamin that we didn’t even know was an essential nutrient, really until 1998. So, it’s a very new field and it’s very closely related to folate and folic acid. Choline’s really important in neurocognitive development, particularly in infants.

The interesting thing about choline is, you see, once we started fortifying the food supply with folic acid to prevent neural tube defects in infants with spina bifida, you see a drop in spina bifida or neural tube defects, but it’s still present. And that’s because about 40% of premenopausal women in the U.S. have a genetic polymorphism, which is just a substitution in their DNA where they can’t metabolize folate correctly. So, either their requirement is much, much higher than the general population or, you know, in some cases, they have a real problem metabolizing it and you need another vitamin that can donate a methyl group because that’s very important in closing the neural tube in an infant. And choline is the vitamin that can do that. Unfortunately, 90% of us don’t get enough choline and we showed that a few years ago. And then more recently, we showed that 92% of pregnant women in the U.S. don’t get enough choline. And it’s super important. It’s not part of a prenatal vitamin because it’s like calcium. It’s big and bulky, you have to take it your own pill. The American Medical Association, just last year, deemed choline as a vitamin that all prenatal supplement should contain. It can’t contain your daily value of it because it’s so bulky, you have to take the other pill. That’s what AMA didn’t realize.

Christina: Sure. So, let’s talk a little more about that because it’s so important. I mean, I know as a person who is, you know, aging, you know, they tell you, “Okay. You need calcium, but you also need these biomes that help you metabolize the calcium.” You know? And things like that. So, okay, we’ve known about these calcium issues but choline is so interesting because we know now that we want you to get more choline, but how do we do that? You know? What are the ways, if we don’t have the dietary supplement sort of regimen or we don’t have enough experience with that, what are the ways that we need to get choline?

Taylor: Well, so the most practical way in the U.S. diet, the number one source of choline are egg yolks. And remember when eggs were so bad, that was completely fake news. Eggs are like one of the most nutritionally sound foods out there and you have to eat the yolk. Most of the vitamins and minerals in the egg are contained within the yolk. So, they’re really a nutrition powerhouse. And we showed that if you eat two eggs a day, two whole eggs, whether they’re scrambled, or hard boiled, or whatnot, then you can get your choline requirements. What’s also interesting in these pregnant women… My friend Marie Caudill at Cornell University just completed a study where she looked at supplementing women during their third trimester with choline. So, she got them and she supplemented them at two times the recommended levels. So, the control group was the recommended level. So, 450 milligrams per day. And the treatment group was like 975 milligrams per day.

The ones in the treatment group on the higher dose of choline, the infants at age six months like had better information processing speed, showed better signs of developing better neuronal development. And then guess what? She just followed up with these infants at age seven and the kids at age seven that were on the higher choline dose had better academic outcomes, better learning ability. So, it just goes to show the power of nutrition very early on and how some of these genetic polymorphisms can be overcome by just having the right types of foods introduced into your diet.

Christina: We were talking about how our grandparents generally ate a lot of everything. I mean, I remember my grandmother who lived to be very old in her late 90s, you know, she would just, everything in moderation and, of course, that included like smoking cigarettes and drinking. You know, maybe we don’t need to be doing that. But so, it goes back to this idea of moderation and we still don’t understand how individuals metabolize certain kinds of food. And we are omnivores and we need a broad spectrum diet is sort of what I’m hearing you say, until we sort of figure out some of this.

Taylor: Absolutely. The whole plant versus animal diet has been really hot in the news right now. And I will tell you that going vegan or vegetarian is just not a good idea. I respect people that do it because of the whole animal rights and they don’t wanna see, you know, animals get killed and stuff like that, but the bottom line is you got these little canines up here for a reason. We’re omnivores, like you said, and that is reflected in our nutritional requirements, right? Choline is not present in plant foods, for the most part. Brussels sprouts and some cruciferous vegetables have very small amounts, but for the most part, we get choline from meats. Not many of us eat liver, but it’s very high in choline, partially because choline is what prevents us from getting fatty liver disease, which is very prevalent in the U.S. In fact, I’ve got a theory that most pregnant women have temporary fatty liver disease because of a choline deficiency. So, the other thing is we need more research in the older population. We need, particularly centenarians. And I have to give a shout out. Today is my great aunt’s 100th birthday. So, happy birthday, Aunt Mill [SP].

Christina: Happy birthday.

Taylor: And let me tell you, she still push-mows her lawn. Talk about a strong woman. And my grandmother was like that too. I mean, she lived to be 95 and like talk about a strong Southern woman. Like they went through it, they went through the Depression, they went through World War II. I mean, talk about two really, really strong, great women that really scratched their way through. And, you know, 100 years old, that’s something to really command. And a lot of it has to do with your genetics. A lot of it has to do with your physical activity. But, you know, nutritionally, we know that the right types of diet, you know, one of the things that both my grandmother and my great grandmother did, they drank a ton of milk. And, you know, we know as you get older that calcium, that vitamin D, protein really plays into the whole bone health situation and also the sarcopenia situation, right? You don’t break a hip if you don’t fall over.

And so, you know, muscle health and bone health, they’re very under-recognized in our society. Most people don’t realize that 52% of Americans over the age of 50 have either osteoporosis or low bone mass, which we call osteopenia as well. So, I mean, it’s a big issue right now and muscle health is also, and we haven’t really figured out how to study it just right. Nutrition can definitely prevent stuff like that. And it all goes back to these polymorphisms. You know, if your mother has osteoporosis, you’re more genetically prone to have it. So, your calcium requirement’s probably higher. And it’s not just about calcium, it’s about vitamin D that helps you absorb calcium and helps put it into your bones. It’s about protein, which acts as the glue in your bones. It’s about choline. You know, if you look at rat models, of course, we have a really hard time having human models of Alzheimer’s disease because you had to follow so many people for so long to look at Alzheimer’s, but there’s at least 40 rat studies that are validated models of Alzheimer’s disease that show if you have a high choline diet throughout your life, much lower incidence of Alzheimer’s in age-related cognitive decline and, again, depending on the rat’s genome.

Christina: This is what’s so interesting because, you know, what we’re talking about really is it’s not just you, but what is your family history? And we’re at a point where, you know, a lot of us we can get this test or get that test, but without, in a sense, trying to contextualize some of it within our family history, we’re still missing a piece of that puzzle. We can be missing a piece of that puzzle.

Taylor: And these tests don’t diagnose, they give you an idea. And like I said, it’s like the light switch thing. So, when my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, I got the 23andMe test because I wanted to see if I had the alleles for it because, you know, if I did, it’s really time now that I’m 35 to start thinking about the types of foods I’m eating, the types of exercise that I’m getting. What do we know currently about Parkinson’s disease that can help prevent it?

Christina: Yes, exactly. That’s so important. We have a lot of emerging technology to talk about preventative and diagnostic medicine and, you know, in the first world, what’s so important is that the cost of doing these tests is coming down. There are a lot of business opportunities. So, a lot of companies getting into this, I mean, granted we still have to work out all of these sort of privacy issues. You know there’s all… What’s interesting in all these technology areas is things are moving so fast that there’s still a little bit of a wild west, like who’s regulating what and what’s not even being regulated.

Taylor: Right. And what’s accurate and what’s not.

Christina: Yeah, exactly. You know? But we want to continue to encourage innovation and not just like jump on there and put a big squash on it. So, as we continue to work that out, we have opportunity to get a lot of really important information on us as individuals. So, let’s talk a little bit about how what we’re learning could help us think about the kind of nutrition and the things we can do to improve nutrition in areas of the world that we don’t have as much information about. And we can’t necessarily assume that everyone’s gonna go out and get a 23andMe test, or a spit test, or whatever. How can we apply either some of what we’re learning to other areas of the world and/or what are some of the challenges that we have when we look at the kind of global food market? But let’s take the first part first and then we’ll get back to the sort of global food market issue, right?

Taylor: Well, yeah. It’s really hard. And, you know, we were talking before the show starts. We’re starting an infant study where we’re gonna be studying 1,200 6-month old infants in Guatemala in this indigenous population that’s in the mountains. And the issue is each population is different, the nutritional requirements, because if you think about it, again, genetically, that population is probably very genetically different from a population in Kenya or in Southeast Asia. So, we know that different ethnicities and different populations react to nutrients differently. Then there’s cultural considerations. If you go to India, they culturally don’t accept having an egg. I mean, that’s just the religious thing. There’s economical aspects to it. And I think that’s really one of the biggest things because most people see in the nutrition space, at least, they see industry being kind of the evil one that’s just selling products. I actually see industry being a big part of the solution because, you know, industry knows supply chains.

And I think that’s what’s really important whether you go into Guatemala, or Kenya, or somewhere in Southeast Asia, knowing what you can get on the supply chain and how you can help them develop economically and self-sustain themselves, I think that’s really important, one, because it’s more solving a longer-term problem that we have low income and these people are really poor versus like, you know, just sending in supplements or sending in food because that’s been largely unsuccessful because even when you send them foods you and I are used to from the U.S. again, that might not fix the nutrition problem in that particular area of the world. So, you kind of have to do the studies to know what works and then you have to figure out, “Okay, if this works, how do I introduce it on the supply chain and make it where it’s economical for us to bring egg farms into Guatemala?” because they have a lot of choline and they have a high incidence of stunting and impaired cognitive development in kids. So, how do we get egg farms in there and get eggs out to people, but also make it something that they can commercialize and, you know, help leverage their own economy?

Then there’s the social part of it, there’s a religious part of it, and there’s an environmental part of it. We just got done talking last week at the UN about how are we going to save the planet? Agriculture has a huge effect on greenhouse gas emissions. And with a growing population, that seems to only increase. Some people will disagree with that, but you know, I think it makes sense that more of us on the planet are gonna eat more. And we have to take into account that if you produce an egg here in the U.S. we have a lot of technology behind that to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to reduce the amount of water, soil erosion and things like that. You go over to a third world country, they don’t have this technology. So, even if you introduce the supply chain, you still got quite a large environmental impact on there. So, we talk about sustainability, but it really has several domains.

Christina: Yeah. I think that’s a very important point because, you know, technology, we want it to help us produce more efficiently and how that is considered in relationship to local markets and local economies. We know that you can’t just give every kid a computer laptop and then you’re done, right? I mean, you just give everyone an egg factory and you’re done, you know? I mean, you really have to think about how that’s gonna be part of that system. And so…

Taylor: Well, and I really think that’s where the Nestles, and the Unilevers, and these big global companies really come into play. We were out at FDA the other day and they had a public hearing where they want to define healthy, you know, on products. And that seems like it makes sense to consumers, right? So, I can look and see what’s considered healthy and FDA would have like a little logo or something where consumers could tell, “Oh, this is healthy. I should buy this and feed this to see my kids.” However, it’s like, “Okay, well, how do we define healthy, for one?” Because you can put everything into a healthy dietary pattern and as long as you stay within your calories and low amount of sugar and saturated fat, it can be healthy.

But the issue is supply chains once again. So, if I’m telling a Unilever or a Nestle, “Okay. If you add a bunch of vegetables to this dish, this microwavable dish, it’s healthy.” So, vegetable’s good. Well, there’s not enough broccoli on the food supply chain to do that globally. So, what does a big company like Unilever or Nestle gonna do? They’re gonna put in potatoes because that’s what’s available on the supply chain. That’s what’s shelf stable so they can take it from one place to another. It’s easy to incorporate, it’s cheap. And so, now, you’ve got a dish that’s full of potatoes. Is that healthy?

Christina: Yes. Yeah. I know.

Taylor: I mean, I really think we have to be careful about stuff like that. And, you know, it even extends to the Third World. I mean, if you go over to Kenya, you’ll see big gated areas where they’re studying GMO bananas. And if you’ve never seen food evolution that was produced by the Institute of Food Technologists, it gives a great scientific perspective on GMO technology and what that really means. And you go over to Kenya and they have these molds that grow that basically wipe out the banana supply, which is a huge part of their economy, but also provide a lot of nutrition locally. And, you know, so now scientists have genetically modified these banana trees to resist certain molds, but it’s illegal. GMOs are still illegal in Kenya. They have all these beautiful banana trees growing behind these big electric fences, you know, with the hazard sign…

Christina: But no one can eat it, but the monkeys maybe.

Taylor: …but nobody can eat. I don’t even know if the monkeys can get in there. But like, you know, it’s really sad because people are really scared of technology when it comes to food. You know, we’ll take any drug, you know, no matter what side effect it has. We’ll do pretty much anything on our Game Boy or our computers, stuff like that, but when it comes to food, people are really scared of technology. And technology’s gonna be what saves the planet.

Christina: Yeah. That’s a good point. Let’s talk about that a little bit because the idea of applying technologies like CRISPR to modify food. And I thought it was great the way you defined the way both of those work because, with GMOs, there has been a lot of reaction to no, you know, Frankenstein food, you know, and all this kind of stuff. Tell us a little bit about how these are different and then tell us what you think we’re gonna see with CRISPR. Tell us a little bit about what you see there.

Taylor: Well, so there’s a few things. I think CRISPR technology will be more widely accepted because I think as a scientific community and as the food industry, they have learned from the past. So, one, when GMOs came out, it was the first of its kind, really great technology, very safe. I mean, you know, it’s the same thing as when we were in middle school and you cross-pollinated the little peas to make the pink flowers versus the white flowers. It’s the same thing that’s in a test tube. So, the whole Franken food thing is not really that relevant because we’re not just making up genes, right? If we want a tomato to be purple, we take the purple gene from a blueberry and we put it into the tomato. So, it’s not like you wouldn’t have that gene if you ate blueberries, you know? So, there’s that. You know, I think early on, Monsanto had a very bad public image because the U.S. government contracted with them earlier to create Agent Orange. So, they were not the most widely-accepted brand to begin with when GMOs came out, even though they discovered probably the technology that is going to sustain and save the world. I mean, this technology is really safe and it’s amazing what we can do with it.

The other thing where the food industry really kills itself is marketing. You know who spent more money on the GMO debate than Monsanto? Whole Foods. Because Whole Foods wants GMO to be bad because they want you to pay $2 extra for their apple. And so, there’s a marketing thing behind these industries as well. It’s the same with Mercola. I mean talk about millions and millions of dollars spent to sell GMO products that are directly related to the company. So, you know, there’s that. I think CRISPR is a little bit different. From a consumer perception, CRISPR basically, we’re not inserting any new genes. If we don’t want the red color in tomatoes, we take our pair of scissors and we cut the DNA strand and we cut out the red gene and then we glue the DNA back together. And so, we’re not introducing anything that might be Franken in consumers’ minds. So, I think that they might be a little bit more accepting of that.

The other thing is I think that the industry is gonna get, you know, a lot smarter. I think that, you know, the industry very much back the technology and really fought the scared consumers with GMOs. And I think this time around you’re gonna see a lot more education, and outreach, and helping people to understand. If you see now, the industry’s moving towards this like smart label where you have the QR code and you can scan it and it’ll trace every ingredient back to the farm level in a product, so consumers have the information that they want. And I’m not so sure if consumers are scared of it or they just want the information and they wanna understand it a little bit better. And so, I think CRISPR technology will be a little bit more smoother because I think we’ve learned a lot from GMO technology.

Christine: Yeah. That’s a really important point. I mean, as these things change, they do sort of help us understand what consumers wanna know, what they feel comfortable with, what kind of education we need to do around different technologies. And I think even with CRISPR, one of the interesting things that I read recently, I think it was in “The Economist,” but, for example, corn, you can pull genes out of native species that we’re not really growing on a commercial level now and you can put that into these species in a way that helps these plants do a better job like fixing nitrogen in the soil so that all of a sudden, they’re going to have a much less reliance on using fertilizers and, you know, things like that. Like there are actually real follow-on benefits to thinking about some of this, not just in modifying the plant, but the fact that that can have real impact on how that system of agriculture can work better. Going back to some of these ideas we were talking about, trying to figure out how to feed a planet, right?

Taylor: Right. And it’s really neat to see this on the farm level because there’s gonna be 11 billion of us on the planet soon and, you know, we’re gonna have to figure out how to sustain that agriculturally without so many greenhouse gas emissions because, you know, climate change is here and you can’t doubt it anymore. I mean, look at this winter that we’ve had, it’s been kind of nuts. One day it like snows 8 inches and the next day it’s 60 degrees in DC. I mean, it’s, you know, climate change is happening.

Christina: It’s happening.

Taylor: And so, I think back to when I was a kid and there wasn’t fluctuations like this. I mean, I think it’s definitely become apparent. I think the scientific community is in complete consensus that climate change is happening. And I think that technology is gonna be the way for us to get around that. If you look at corn, for instance, or just, you know, people think organic is so much better, but the bottom line is organic is not sustainable. And here’s why. I just took a trip out to the canola fields in Canada and if you can imagine, they’re absolutely beautiful, the yellow flowers. And we talked with some of the canola farmers. And what was really striking to me, because I grew up on a farm in Kentucky that grew GMO soybeans, wheat, and corn, and we rotated those crops annually and, you know, I didn’t even realize this, I feel bad being a scientist that I didn’t even realize this, you know, those big sprayer trucks that go by that spray all the awful Roundup on things?

Christina: Right.

Taylor: So, the farmer comes in and is giving us a talk about new agriculture practices and stuff like that, no till farming, genetic technology and how it’s really saved their crop production in Canada, particularly with canola, one, crop efficiency goes way up, but it goes way up because these big sprayer trucks on a whole football field, they’re spraying… He brought out this little mason jar, it looked like a little jelly jar and it was about half full. And he was like, “This is how much Roundup we put on a whole football field.” And he’s like, “So, this has very little environmental impact and it kills the weeds when they’re very tiny.” So, they only have to do it, you know, a couple of times during the season versus organic, you’ve got these huge weeds growing. Crop efficiency is only, what, 20% of what you have when you’re using Roundup? And, you know, yes, in the ’70s, we had chemicals that were very harmful to the soil. But nowadays, I mean, most people don’t realize that Roundup is 5,000 times less toxic than table salt. So, it’s like we’re all worried about consuming pesticides.

There was something, you know, all over the news about we found Roundup in beer and wine this week and it’s just like, well, in order to have the toxic dose that they found in rats, you would have to drink a thousand liters of beer a day for like 20 years to get the effect. And it’s like, “Okay, seriously?” Like technology, we’ve gotten there to where we can detect these parts per trillion.

Christina: Yes. That’s right. Yes. Very sensitive.

Taylor: Toxicity is in the dose. Right?

Christina: That’s right.

Taylor: So, things are harmful in the dose. You can drink too much water and die. Yes, we can detect down to these parts per trillion levels now with pretty much anything, but does that mean it’s in gonna harm you? Likely not.

Christina: And my other grandmother had a beautiful garden in her yard and I always felt like if you, you know, really want to try to have, again, World War II depression, you know, like you wanna eat it? Grow it in your garden. You know? So, like you wanna do it all like toxic-free and, you know, this and the other. That’s definitely something that I think it would be nice to see more of these like beautiful gardens where people are satisfying these sort of needs and not always thinking that the market has to necessarily provide that, you know, for them.

Taylor: Right. I had this discussion with this little group out in Arlington the other week and it kind of aggravates me because, you know, here in Washington, DC, we live in this what I call the little rich white woman society. And it’s just like, and everybody can shop at Whole Foods and buy their big organic vegetables and, you know, you can go walking during the day at lunch and stuff like that. I’m from South Western Kentucky and, you know, the average household income in Hopkinsville is $17,000 a year. And so, people can’t just go out and buy fruits and vegetables. Well, one, they’re not available, you know, it’s a food desert. And so, what’s available is a bunch of fast food restaurants on the boulevard and the produce in the grocery store is limited. And so, you know, we really have to like encourage people to eat canned fruits and vegetables, frozen fruits and vegetables, which by the way, frozen fruits and vegetables are typically nutritionally better for you because most fruits and vegetables in the grocery store, if you bit into that tomato and it tastes awful, it’s because they’re picked green and they are allowed to ripen on the trucks. A lot of fruits and vegetables are like that because there’s such long transportation times that they’ll go bad. Frozen fruits and vegetables are picked ripe and blast-frozen immediately and bagged and sent to the grocery store so, you get a lot more nutrition out of them than you actually do the produce that’s on the shelf for the most part.

Christina: That’s a really great point. Yeah. So, let’s talk a little bit about how you got into this. You’re mentioning that you grew up around farms, you grew up in Kentucky. And did you just always love food? I mean, were you interested in food? How’d you become a food scientist?

Taylor: Yeah, though it kinda just fell into my lap. You know, when I was in high school, I was really interested in biology and chemistry and did really well in those subjects. And I went to University of Kentucky. We had what was called a KEES program in Kentucky. So, every A that you made in high school went towards your college tuition and lowered your college tuition. So, it was like, “Oh, I really wanna go out of state.” And my dad’s like, “Okay, well, take a loan and good luck.”

Christina: Or you have all these good grades.

Taylor: Or you can have all these good grades and you can have a full ride at Kentucky. Hope you like basketball. So I ended up going to University of Kentucky and I met this great guy. He was my academic advisor, still a really good friend of mine today. His name’s Benjie Michael. And I was touring the biology and chemistry department and he said, you know, “You might wanna look at food science.” And my grandmother, to give you a little bit more of a background on that, when I grew up in Western Kentucky, I grew up with my grandmother. Well, with my parents, but I was out at my grandmother’s house for the most part. And we always used to enter the Western Kentucky State Fair together and we cooked together and we won seven years out of eight years that we entered. And so, I have all these great recipes. I’m actually coming out with a cookbook in May of all of our recipes. It’s called “Sizzling Science.” It’ll be on Amazon in the next two months or so.

And so, she really got me into food. And then as I got into college and I started looking at food science, I was like, “Well, this is really cool.” for two reasons. One because, you know, you get to take the science that you love and apply it towards making a safer, healthier, more nutritious food supply. And I got really interested on the nutrition side. Okay, people aren’t gonna eat blueberries, so how do I take the healthy purple pigments from blueberries that we know prevent cardiovascular disease and insert them into products like yogurt that people do consume so that they get those antioxidants? But that’s where I really kind of started out and it’s been phenomenal since then. I went on to Ohio State to continue the whole antioxidant research that I was doing in the flavonoid area, worked a lot with the purple pigments in blueberries, and blackberries, and purple corn and really how they affect cardiovascular disease.

And, you know, after graduation, I kind of went more into the policy route here in DC. There’s this farm that has a foundation grant over on George Washington’s farm and they’re growing this 4 acres of organic vegetables and they’re handing them out in DC in lower income areas on a $7 million grant. And it’s like, “Okay. Well, is this sustainable? This can’t happen in Western Kentucky.” We’ve got to figure out some way to get fresh produce into those food deserts in a practical way. You know, policy needs to be evidence-based. We have to have some practicality to it.

Christina: Definitely. Yeah. So, this is what I love, is like you have this really hardcore science background. You’ve done a deep dive into the policy and now you’re really talking to the public about this in a very easy to understand, very digestible way. So, tell me a little bit like for a student who’s thinking about going into this area, what are some of the big challenges that you would like to see people working on and what are some of the things you’re communicating out there to people?

Taylor: Well, one of the things that I think food scientists have done really badly is communicate. And, you know, most researchers have a really hard time communicating, you know, with the general public to begin with. And that’s one of the reasons I’ve kind of taken the angle that I have because I feel like I can resonate with people and I can kind of take issues like GMOs or different types of technologies, why we use certain food additives. People are so afraid of food additives. It’s almost like, okay, but these are really making your food safe. Like you don’t wanna get sick. We don’t want you to get sick and these are harmless.

So, it’s really taking information like that and really getting it out to consumers. And I think that somebody has to do it. And, you know, I get a lot of backlash from the scientific community a lot of times because scientists disagree on topics and everybody wants nutrition to be black and white or food science to be black and white, but it’s not. It’s very gray. And so, what we have to do is give the best-informed opinion that we can to help people live longer and be healthier, you know? So, I think that hopefully, my being out there really kind of drive some of our professional societies and maybe drive some of these younger scientists, these younger kids. I got a call the other day from a student at Ohio State that’s starting this whole university club around scientists that wanna communicate, that wanna be in the media, that wanna blog, and things like that. I think it’s really important because I think there’s a lot of what I call nutrition quacks out there that give very pseudoscience advice. You know, and again, nutrition is a gray area, but there’s a lot of unqualified people. You know, you can take the Food Babe, Marion Nestle, any of these guys that just give a lot of information to get a lot of following and to make a lot of money.

Conflicts of interest really go far beyond just the food industry here. If I can sell books, if I can really, which, I guess, I’m kind of contradicting myself because I have the book coming out… But, you know, I’m also qualified to sit here and say, you know, “Look, choline isn’t gonna save your life. It’s not gonna prevent you from getting Alzheimer’s, but being nutritionally sufficient has its benefits and it might decrease your risk of several of these cognitive impairments that we see later in life.” And so, I think having somebody out there with a balanced perspective is really important. And I hope that by me being out there so much that other scientists will step up and do the same thing.

Christina: That’s so important because what you’re contributing is the idea of continuous evaluation of the evidence and not just saying that, “Okay, this week…” People keep telling me about this cauliflower, like feed your babies cauliflower. I’m like, “When did that come up?” I mean, you know, it’s like… I mean, it’s just like every week it’s something new, you know? And so, I think we really do need to have this more evidence-based sort of approach.

Taylor: And, you know, I’m not against feeding your babies cauliflower.

Christina: I mean, it’s great but…

Taylor: It’s a cruciferous vegetable. And, you know, it’s a really important thing because, you know, we’re seeing the research, the earlier that you introduce foods to your kids and the more diversity that you can have in your child’s diet, one, the more accepting they’ll become of different foods when they’re an adult. They’ll have a more broad palette. And secondly, we know that food addiction and food cravings start at a very young age. So, I mean, I’m almost even timid… Like my best girlfriend, we had her son’s first birthday this last weekend and, you know, she had the big birthday cake, you know, and he like tasted the cake for the first time. But, you know, again, growing up in Kentucky, my parents giving me fast food for lunch and dinner almost every day as a child, I mean, there’s nothing I crave more than a Wendy’s cheeseburger as an adult. And I don’t let myself have it, but it’s, just those cravings are instilled very early in life. I joke about Diet Coke all the time. And, again, nothing wrong with Diet Coke, but my mother wouldn’t feed me or give me regular Cokes when I was a kid. She gave me Diet Coke and my friends laugh all the time because I always have a Diet Coke with everything.

Christina: Yeah. I was joking that my parents wouldn’t give me soda but they gave me oodles of High-C, which is just, you know… Again, it goes back to that, everything in moderation.

Taylor: And now, we’ve got the functional MRIs, like what you might get, you know, in the hospital and we’ve put people under them and we put a feeding tube into the system and we give them solutions of sugar, or salt, or saturated fat. And you see the same parts of the brain light up as they do with the heroin addiction. Now, obviously, not to the same extent, you know, we’re talking a needle in a haystack versus, you know, a whole haystack. But still, food is addictive and it’s instilled very early on. And so, for new parents, I would say, you know, you really have to watch what foods you’re giving because I see all these cookies for infants and things like that. And I think that really starts the problem out early on. And if, you know, you’re an adult and you’re obese and you have a child, that child’s genetically predisposed, you know, it’s got a lot of those genes that are upregulated already. So, it’s predisposed to diabetes, and weight gain, and things like that, lower metabolism. And so, you know, you really have to worry about what you give your child very early on, especially in the first two years of life.

Christina: Let’s talk a little bit about metabolisms, and dieting, and eating, because, you know, again, as someone who’s aging, you know, my metabolism has noticeably slowed from my 20s and I have to be much more careful about what I eat, how much I eat, and things like that. But still, there are definitely points where, particularly, after this winter when it’s like maybe a few too many Bombay Sapphire, you know?

Taylor: Yeah. Right.

Christina: That’s right. You’re like, “Okay, like what do I do to get rid of the 10 pounds, or 5 pounds, or whatever?” Yes, I know exercise, but let’s talk a little bit about diet.

Taylor: Rich white women problems.

Christina: Right. The rich white woman problem. It’s so true. Yes. But let’s talk a little bit about dieting because it is a fascination and, you know, there are a lot of different approaches to it. And I would like to just sort of hear where you are on this whole topic.

Taylor: A lot of people are really surprised where I am on this topic because I’m the new spokesperson for Atkins and I’ve always done lower carb diets myself because I find with my metabolism, it works. But it’s very…again, it’s a personalized approach. So, what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another person. Women are completely different than men. Everybody’s nutritional requirement is somewhat different, so the consumer has a little bit better of an idea about their body and what works and what doesn’t than the practitioner or even the dietitian. And so, I think that piece is really important, again, I think totally moving towards genetic technologies where we’re gonna be able to individualize diets for people. I think that’s coming in 10 years, which is really neat. But, you know, right now, everybody’s crazy about the keto diet. And, again, very personalized. If you are overweight, you know, let’s say you’re 30, 40 pounds overweight, doing the keto diet for 2 months, is it healthy for you? Okay, well, we know saturated fat raises your cholesterol levels. You know, having a high-fat diet might not be that great in the long term, but in the short term, if you’re 40 pounds overweight, your cholesterol’s probably high, anyway, and if you can lose the weight and then back your diet back down to where you sustain the weight, then that’s optimal, I think.

Where we go wrong with diets, well, outside of the keto and the Atkins style diets because the Atkins is a keto diet, most diets don’t work because what you do is you decrease your calorie intake. So, you restrict some foods and somehow you end up eating fewer calories. And what your body does is it slows your metabolism in response to that. So, you might lose weight but your metabolism lowers, so then when you start back on your normal diet, then you gain all the weight and more back because your metabolism doesn’t just bounce back up. That’s, again, why exercise is really important when you’re doing any diet because it kind of keeps your metabolism up a little bit. The keto diet’s very different because you’re basically just restricting carbohydrates. So, you’re replacing those with protein and fat, so you’re getting pretty much the same amount of calories in so there’s no fluctuation in your metabolism. It works very well in overweight patients. I don’t do very strict diets. That’s what’s really nice about the Atkins diet. And for those of you who don’t know, they have a new book, it’s called, “Eat Right, Not Less.” It’s got some great recipes in there and it’s really flexible to your body, which I really like. There’s three different levels of Atkins, the really strict one that’ll give you 20 carbs a day, then there’s one that’s 40, and then one that’s 100. If you’re like you and me that just wanna lose 5 pounds before beach season, you know, the 100, you know, where you’re just eliminating sugar, and potatoes, and pasta, and bread in a month, you can lose 5 pounds pretty easy and then go about your normal diet regimen, you don’t gain the weight back so quickly because it’s pretty easy to continuously sustain.

And so, I think that for my body, the Atkins diet works, the lower carb thing. And if you think about it from a 10,000-foot view, most Americans consume right what the dietary guidelines recommend for meat and protein. We’re very under for fruit and vegetable intake, but where we really exceed are the grains, particularly the refined grains because sugar and starches, they’re everywhere. I mean, think about, you know, if you have to go out to lunch here in DC and you’ve got to avoid bread and pasta, like don’t even think about the sugar, just to avoid bread, pasta, cookies, pastries, you know, that kind of stuff, it’s really, really hard because it’s in everything. So, you really have to kinda think about it and make it a lifestyle.

Christina: Particularly going out, right? When you’re out for business lunches, out for social events, and it’s just always there. Yeah.

Taylor: And these keto diets are a great way to really handle prediabetes or diabetes because your body handles about one teaspoon of sugar at a time. And so, like if you go out and eat a whole wheat bagel, your body converts that to about eight teaspoons of sugar. So, what does your body do with that extra seven teaspoons? It stores it as fat. And so, the keto diet, by using up all of those stored reserves really brings your blood sugar down and kind of stabilizes all that, but it also makes your body go burn those fat stores.

Christina: Yeah. So, good advice for First World rich lady.

Taylor: You know, again, it’s not the easiest to do, but I tell you, this book, the “Eat Right, Not Less” book, they’ve got some recipes in there that are relatively inexpensive that you can get in the grocery store fairly easy. And you know what? You can substitute any of these fresh fruits and vegetables for frozen and get it at a fourth of the cost. I mean, I’m a huge fan, again, of frozen foods, especially if you’re on a budget or if you have a big family. A lot of these diets are great. If you’re like me and you’re single and you’re cooking for one, you can meal prep on Sunday and have all your meals for the rest of the week. But when you got like two or three kids, you know…

Christina: And they all wanna eat different vegetables. You know, like, hello.

Taylor: And they all wanna eat differently like anything. You know, it makes it a lot harder. So, I mean, I think that’s really where frozen foods like really…

Christina: Make a difference. Yeah.

Taylor: …make a difference. Yeah.

Christina: Well, this has been a great conversation. I am totally gonna look forward to seeing your book with distinctive recipes, some of which come from your memories with your grandmother and winning all these amazing cooking and competitions in Kentucky.

Taylor: If you want a health cookbook, go to Atkins because nothing in my cookbook is healthy. It’s all Southern cooking.

Christina: I love it. Hey, I grew up in [crosstalk 00:47:59]

Taylor: You know, it’s great if you wanna entertain, but if you wanna be on the carb diet, you better go for the Atkins.

Christina: Go there first. Okay. I better do that first and then get your cookbook.

Taylor: Yeah. Buy my cookbook on the offseason and then deep season go to Atkins.

Christina: Go to Atkins. That sounds like a pretty good plan. Check Taylor out, not only in his blog, he has some really great information there, but also on “The Dr. Oz Show.” You appear regularly as well?

Taylor: Absolutely. I was actually just up filming yesterday.

Christina: Yeah. So, check those places out and we look forward to getting your thoughts about this podcast and questions that people might have based on the conversation.

Taylor: Absolutely.

Christina: All right. Thank you.

Taylor: Thanks for having me.

Christina: Ultimately, the biotech revolution will allow consumers to make more informed decisions based on a better understanding of how their physical makeup and food interact to affect their health. Thanks to Dr. Taylor Wallace for talking with me today. Until next time, this is Christina Elson in the “Inc. Tank.”

This episode of The Inc. Tank would not be possible without:

Christina Elson, Host and Executive Producer
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This podcast is brought to you by The Ed Snider Center for Enterprise & Markets and the Kauffman Foundation.