Of the six of us who gathered for Mom’s Night Out last week, only two were unaffected by diet-related health issues. How eating has changed in the 21st century! At age 15 in 1982, I was told I was only the second person in Tennessee to be diagnosed with Celiac Disease (gluten intolerance). I had one friend who had a food allergy to dairy. That’s it. Foods didn’t have additives like inulin and malitol or GMOs, so we didn’t need to consider avoiding them. There was no organic v. conventional. Food has become complicated.
Today, more than 1/3 of Americans are avoiding gluten. Fifteen million Americans have been diagnosed with at least one (and many times multiple) food allergy to common foods like nuts and dairy. And the numbers keep growing; peanut allergies alone have increased 600% since 1997 and documented Celiac disease has increased 500% since 1950. What is causing this surge?
Theories abound. But for me, when I was a parent of young kids who clearly were sugar sensitive and dairy and gluten intolerant, I didn’t need theories (and I especially didn’t need skeptics questioning whether my kids diet-related disorders were real). I needed practical, everyday solutions. And my hardest problem to solve was snacks.
Snacks used to be only moderately challenging. My go-to snack was nuts (not “nuts,” as in crazy, but peanuts, almonds, cashews, etc.). They met all our diet needs, had protein to support growth and development, and were convenient. I did not like the plethora of cheap high-carb snacks constantly marketed to kids and available everywhere. I wanted protein-based snacks so my kids would stay full and stay focused.
But then our school went nut-free. Two of their classmates had nut allergies. Two kids, and now 400 students and their families needed nut-free snacks and lunches – 165 days a year. I understood the school’s decision and wasn’t angered by it. I just needed a solution. I had meetings with other parents to develop lists of convenient protein-base snacks but things like hard-boiled eggs and jerky were expensive, messy, or the kids didn’t really like them.
So I decided to start my company ZEGO to make convenient nutrient-packed foods that met nearly every dietary need. A seed-based, protein-packed snack you could share with reckless abandon because it wouldn’t trigger allergies or intolerances or send you into a sugar tailspin.
The allergy issue was tricky, though. Even the equivalent of a grain of sand of peanuts, almonds, and dairy can be life threatening for the most severely allergic people. This was a bigger problem than I realized because the American food supply chain is not designed to prevent ingredients from crossing over and contaminating other ingredients. For instance, a recent FDA report revealed that most cocoa powder is contaminated with dairy, even in many brands labeled “dairy-free.” And, even if you can get clean ingredients, there are very few manufacturing facilities in the US that do not use any of the top allergenic ingredients for at least some of the products they make. That means your clean ingredients could get contaminated in the manufacturing plant.
Well, obviously I couldn’t reform the U.S. supply chain and manufacturing limitations overnight, but I needed an immediate solution. That’s when I thought of testing each batch of our finished product for cross contact.
But, I wondered, what would be the outcome of a positive test?
If the test showed cross contact that amounted to a percentage of a grain of sand (measured by millionths of a kilogram or “parts per million”), I couldn’t afford to throw out the product (not to mention such a waste of food). So, I decided to test and give the information to my customers, and let them decide. If they could easily access my test results for the batch for the bar they had in their hand, that would be fantastic. They could decide for themselves if the snack was safe for them or their children . So, I linked the test results for each batch to each bar with a QR code and a text code printed on the wrapper. Instant access to information that is 95% likely to be right. When I told a colleague about this, he immediately asked, “How much would it cost to get a test that is 100% accurate? Let’s raise the money and do that!” I loved his spirit, but statistically speaking, his goal is impossible.
With sample testing, it is impossible to have a test that is guaranteed 100% accurate. You’d have to be testing the bite that was about to go into your mouth and even with that there is room for inaccuracy. The statistical standard is to aim to be 90% or 95% confident that your testing is accurate.
So testing provides really valuable data to consider, but nothing—no test, no assurance that a product is made in a dedicated facility—absolutely nothing can guarantee no cross contact has happened. It’s true that for the vast majority of food allergic people, a percentage of a grain of sand worth of the food they are allergic to will not cause a reaction. Even if the testing is off, twice that amount won’t either. But for those with the most severe allergies, this is serious stuff and they need to know. So they can see the test results for their ZEGO bar’s batch and decide for themselves. That’s transparency, that’s honesty.
And, that’s ZEGO’s guarantee. I also guarantee that my company and nonprofit, A Better Course www.abettercourse.org, will be part of the effort to clean up the food system in the U.S. I also hope to find a facility that is allergen free to make my products in the future. But even if my efforts are successful, I will always test every batch. Because there is a lot of time and space between the field and the finished product, and you just never know what could happen.