Friday, August 27, 2010

Which Whey World

I was on a whey panel today at the American Cheese Society annual Conference, a gathering that brings together hundreds of cheese makers and sellers and aficionados in one place. Everyone from small farmstead producers to companies that sell millions of pounds of cheese a year is here. So many wonderful cheeses to sample, so many interesting cheese makers to talk to. It’s almost overwhelming.

For a cheese maker, whey is the source of many headaches. You spend hours making cheese, then you end up with almost as much liquid in a tank as came into the plant originally as milk, and you have to get rid of it before you can start making cheese again, which is in a few hours, typically, because those cows or goats or sheep keep making milk and you keep getting milk to make into cheese.

Raw whey is a watery yellow liquid, salty, a bit foamy. It used to be that cheese makers could feed it to animals – pigs love it. Across Italy you still see small farmstead cheese plants with a pen of pigs outside. The trouble is, once you start making any significant volume of cheese, you need LOTS of pigs. Where there are LOTS of pigs, there is LOTS of manure, and manure is something you really don’t want in a cheese plant. So you buy some land, or find a farmer who has some land, and you start land-spreading your whey as fertilizer. Until you have raised the phosphorous content of the soil to the point where it can’t produce crops anymore, or until the ground freezes in the winter, you land-spread your whey, it thaws, and runs off the frozen field into a nearby stream and kills off the fish that the trout unlimited volunteers have painstakingly restored over the past ten years. It’s somewhere in this process that the regulators from the state natural resources department start showing up at your plant, and its at this point that you start shipping your whey to a separate plant that converts it into something else.

It’s no wonder that by the time people start shipping their whey to us to make into teraswhey,, they are already irritated about the whole process and just want their headache to go away. The good news is that as this whole new world of whey products has evolved, the value of the whey as a by product has increased and money has a funny way of making head aches go away. The bad news is increasingly the product requirements for the whey protein is pressuring cheese makers to change how they make their cheese. Cook temperatures, natural colorings added to make cheese yellow, acidifiers, all components of the cheese making process, are increasingly inconvenient for whey bound for nutritional supplement products. Which means that a new whey headache is cropping up for cheese makers: the tail is threatening to wag the dog. For people trying to make really authentic cheeses, conforming to the whey ideal is a particularly vexing.

Not all of these product requirements for whey actually impact the quality of the protein. Some of them only impact flavor, some appearance. If we want to live in a world where all of our whey protein is identical, then we need to live in a world where all of our cheese is too. Is that really the world we want to live in?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Marking Time

There’s nothing like research to stretch things out. I am a big fan of making fact based decisions, but it seems like right now we are faced with so many significant changes at once that the scientific method is failing to keep up.

Researchers from the University of Cincinnati Medical School published findings last week in the on line Journal of Pediatrics that confirmed that girls are now developing breasts and hitting puberty as young as age seven. While confirming something that many of us had suspected for a long time after watching our own kids, their friends, nieces and classmates, the study could not present any conclusive explanation of what could be causing this shift.

The study compared 1200 girls age six to eight in New York, Ohio, and California. It compared the age when the girls showed early signs of puberty against the results of a similar study from 13 years ago. At 8 years old 18.3% of white girls showed signs of developing breasts, 43% black, and 37% Latina. In all categories the ages of the girls were statistically significantly younger than they were just 13 years ago. No explanation of the divergence among the races was offered.

The researchers posed two areas for further research. The first is that the data showed a statistically significant correlation between obesity and early puberty. In the study, the girls who reached puberty at a young age were also more likely to be obese. The disturbing thing about this is that these young girls will be at a higher risk of many health problems for the rest of their lives due to their early obesity. Unfortunately, however, correlation doesn’t prove causality. Is it the obesity that causes the early puberty or is there something out there that is a precursor to one or both?

The second was environmental toxins. Over 100 chemicals were found in the girls. The study author, Dr. Frank Biro of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, postulates that pollutants that mimic the female hormone estrogen might also be contributing to early puberty. “Whether {they be in} food that they’ve eaten, or products that are used for personal care products, as well as products that could be used at their homes”. Note that the Dr. didn’t call out something like proximity to a nuclear waste site or early exposure to radiation; he called out things that we all have in our lives every day. Could it be that the food we eat and the personal care products we use are causing early puberty?

What pollutants mimic estrogen? Carbon chorines used in pesticides, phthalates used in the plastics industry to soften pvc, dioxin that is a byproduct of paper processing, and herbicides. These are all chemicals that can interact with the same receptor molecules inside the body that estrogen can. The theory is that we may be overdosing living things with excesses of hormone-like signals. Pesticides and herbicides are certainly used in food production in the US, and we use them on our lawns and in our homes. Our food comes wrapped in plastic, we use bleached white paper products. The potential list of everyday contaminants goes on.

So what are we to do? I heard a doctor interviewed on a cable news channel after the release of the Presidents report of the state of our health that discussed the mounting evidence that organophosphates were associated with ADD in kids. Imagine thinking your were doing the right thing getting your kids to eat more vegetables, only to find out that the veggies you gave them were making them sick. This doctor advised people to “eat local food, not something from Mexico”. What is it about local that means it hasn’t been exposed to chemicals? We use more chemicals in food production in the US than Mexico does. Where I live in the Midwest, our local farm production is some of the most chemical intensive in the world.

As un-cool as it sounds, eating organic food is still important. Local and organic is the best, but it’s dangerous to confuse local with chemical free. In the world of Venn diagrams, they are two different circles that overlap but they are not identical. I also think its interesting that the study authors didn’t attempt to explain the significantly higher rates of early puberty among African American and Latina girls. It may not be an accident that these demographic groups are more likely to be poor, eat a less healthy diet, be obese, and live in cities, than white children.

Conclusive research moves slowly at best, and may never happen because of the difficulties inherent in conducting scientific research on this kind of long-term effect of multiple factors. In the meantime, maybe a bit of common sense would work better? Something is going on that is making animals lower in the food chain multi sexual, sterile [frogs for ex.]; something is here that’s driving down male sperm counts globally; something is making young girls pubescent when they used to be playing with dolls. Maybe we don’t have time for definitive research? Maybe we get to work on getting chemicals out of our food now, not decades from now when the research is more definitive.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Our Impact

When people ask me about my business, one of their first questions is how many employees I have.  It’s everyone’s proxy for how big my business is and also, I think, how big its impact is.  The same number is used to measure the same things in many government programs and sometimes it’s the only measure used.

My business makes me wonder whether the number of jobs created by a business isn’t an outdated way to measure economic impact.  Technology has made it possible for people to collaborate and work together without being physically together, and many more people than ever provide outsourced services to businesses as a result.  Small businesses like mine that are just gearing up use these contract services extensively because we don’t have enough work to justify full time employees yet.  My national sales forced, marketing and web services, payroll processing, controller, legal council, warehousing and wholesale order fulfillment, are all done by third parties.  About 8 full time truck drivers have been hired by other companies because of my business.  If I add all of this up, we probably created closer to 30 jobs than the 16 that are actually my employees.

Wellness businesses like mine create a broad range of secondary benefits (some would say primary) that we ought to measure as well.  Are the jobs created good ones (living wage with benefits).  Does how we source are raw materials contribute to a more sustainable world or detract from it? Do our products make people more or less healthy; even help their bodies heal themselves?  Do we do we can do to be good stewards of the natural resources we do use?  I can honestly say yes to all of these questions and that’s a source of great pride for me personally. 

We ought to find a way to take these things into account when we are looking at the total impact of a business on an economy and community.  We are at a point where we are drowning in negative secondary economic impacts.  For example, when a company launches new foods that are loaded with sugar or high fructose corn syrup, they aren’t just creating jobs, they are also creating foods that contribute to the obesity epidemic in the country, something that is one of the biggest drivers of health care utilization and one that most experts think could literally bankrupt our current health care system.  Shouldn’t businesses that manage to create jobs for people and make products that are good for people somehow get more “credit” for that than businesses that are indirectly making people sick? 

 The problem is that in a free market system, companies that create products that people like (despite them being bad for them), ceteris paribus, perform well.  It isn’t until years later that the cumulative effect of eating these foods creates chronic disease, at which point the costs have been exported to people paying for health insurance and taxpayers who fund government health insurance programs.  There is therefore a disconnect in both calendar time and the recipient that makes it impossible for market signals to favor wellness businesses over illness businesses.

Maybe this all starts by asking different questions in the beginning.  If instead of people asking me how many jobs I created, they asked me how my company supports human health, they would learn enough to choose wellness over illness.  It’s the choices we make, each and every day, that add up to the world we live in.  If we don’t like the results we see around us, then its time to get different information and make different choices.  

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Spring Flush - It's All About The Grass

“Spring Flush”.  If you are not in the dairy industry, it’s a phrase that conjures up the face of an embarrassed young girl or an April plumbing incident.  For me, hopelessly engrossed in a new business that’s rooted in traditional dairy, its living proof that our cows and goats do in fact eat grass.

It’s early June and our plant is full.  Totally full.  That means we have lines of trucks waiting to unload, staff that hover over our processing facility making constant adjustments to maximize our throughput, a drier that’s running 24/7, and people who have worked 7 days a week for several weeks.  Eight weeks ago, we were nowhere close to full.  Wiser people who have been around a while said, just wait until June.  I thought that meant we would see a bit more whey from each of our plants.  I had no idea how much more whey we could get…

And it’s not just more whey, it’s different whey.  Some of our cheese plants only make certain types of cheese in the spring.  That’s because their cows and goats and sheep are eating loads of fresh grass in the spring, and fresh grass has different components in it than mature grass or late season grass.  To a cheese maker, different components mean different flavors in their cheese.  Old time cheese makers tell me that the differences can be so pronounced that they change their starter cultures in the spring to enhance the natural flavors and ward off the bitterness that can occur in cheese made from spring milk. 

This is in stark contrast to confinement systems where cows are fed the same rations day in and day out all year.  No variation in feed means no variation in production volume, less variation in flavor, and no need to change cultures or make a different kind of cheese.  Great if what you want to do is produce the same cheese day in and day out; not good if you want distinctive flavors, believe that cows should be allowed to exercise their natural behavior and graze, and are interested in having dairy products with all of their constituent health benefits.

This is all possible because the amazing stomachs of cows change when they graze.  Their guts become huge as the villai expand to break down the grass, so much so that they can look a bit like a cow in one of those 18th century Dutch paintings with tiny legs and a huge girth.  When their guts digest the grass, they extract nutrients, which end up as biochemical components in the milk and the products made from the milk.  The most commonly understood difference between grass fed milk and silage fed milk is the CLA level.  CLAs are a fatty acid that has been shown to have health benefits for people.  Less well understood are a huge range of trace vitamins and minerals that come from the soil, feed the grass, and are consumed by grazing animals.  I just read an amazing book called, “ Soil, Grass, Cancer” that was written in the 1950’s by a French Veterinarian.  In it he discussed the scientific evidence that existed at the time of how depleted soil produced depleted grass which grazing animals then converted into nutrient deficient tissue and milk that was in turn eaten by humans.  The author then went on to cite studies that linked a nutrient deficient diet to cancer.  Not calorie deficient but nutrient deficient in trace minerals like copper.

What I found most concerning about that book was it was written in the 1950’s in France, a time that predates a lot of the worst modern agricultural practices and place that has banned GMOs and still practices relatively traditional farming and values its local and regional food culture.  If the data from the 1950’s showed enough soil nutrient depletion to cause problems for both grazing animals and humans, imagine what we are exposing ourselves to when we eat food produced on severely depleted soils in an industrial food system.

For good reason, people often ask me if our whey is grass fed.  Then they ask if we’ve tested for CLA’s.  What I tell people is that the CLA’s, as fatty acids, follow the cheese not the whey.  Which means that testing our whey for CLA’s will not help us understand whether our cows eat grass.  Beyond there, the component differences are small, but as the book convincingly demonstrates, even small differences in trace elements can make a huge difference.  In our goat whey, for example, the ratio of alpha to beta lactalbumen changes throughout the lactation.  I bet if we tested our cow whey across the season, we would find similar but less consistent variations.  Goats are milked seasonally in this part of the country so they are all hitting their lactation at a similar time and are therefore all in the same stage of their lactation together.  Cows have a longer lactation and milk all year round, so they don’t tend to be as close in their lactation stages unless it is a seasonal dairy.

So it turns out that, even in this world of high tech scientific analysis, the best way for us to tell that our whey comes from animals on pasture is still the Spring Flush: the fact that we have one, the fact that our components vary from month to month, and the fact that we have trucks lined up in June and not in February.  That and driving through the countryside tonight and watching cows literally lope down a grassy field just for the fun of it on an early summer evening...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Can Berries be Sexy?

I often tell people that great design is one of those things that people know when they see but find difficult to explain in words.  That’s because, like great art, great design is appropriate and compelling and stimulating in ways that do not reside in rational thought.

When we were first talking about packaging for teraswhey, I had an image in my head of what I wanted.  It was inspired by a product I bought in London that was a series of cubes in a sleeve, each cube being a type of chocolate from another part of the world.  One side of the cube was white and had a picture of the particular single cacao bean on it.  It was so simply dramatic and seemed to align with the products I was making – clean, naturally formulated, few ingredients.

So we decided to include among a wide range of design approaches one that was white with nothing but a glamour shot of the relevant fruit or flavor on the front.  It was a radically different approach to packaging a protein product.  The industry has made whey protein, something that has been consumed as a medicinal food for centuries, into a scientifically re-engineered agglomeration, and as a result, the packaging has to list a plethora of data and claims and certifications about contents and manufacturing processes.  Alternatively, the body building community creates brands whose fundamental personality is physical power and narcissism:  pictures of guys with six packs and women with biceps and bulging veins in their arms.  My packaging designer, a person who I’ve worked with forever and trust implicitly, kept telling me that fruit pictures was a risky approach; my sales experts kept asking for more copy.  And what was this poem thing? It didn’t even line up…

In the end I decided to stick to my vision and my impossible to explain gut and create packaging that was beautiful and emotionally compelling in its simplicity.  The reception in the market has been phenomenal; everyone loves it and can’t explain why, which was my goal.

 When I do events, 95% of men who buy something choose a berry over chocolate and vanilla.  95% of women do the opposite.  I told this to a male medical doctor and he laughed, lined up my berry canisters, and told me that when men look at my berry packaging, the primitive part of their brains are thinking its time to eat, hunt, or have sex.

Who knew berries were so sexy???