In Defense of Food Hysteria

Last week I was working the Winter Fancy Food Show, introducing our new allergy-friendly, gluten free ZEGO energy bars to store buyers, when a person with a press badge chastised me for being an “idiot” – I’m not kidding. He said, “Why would you create a business for hysterical people? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”


I don’t remember his name but I’d like to respond, beyond stating the obvious, that it is uninformed, rude and insensitive to off-handedly call people living with severe food allergies and intolerances “hysterical.” For those of you with limited time, let me give you my short answer now: We are all one, shockingly short step away from being legitimately “hysterical” about food. My goal is to prevent that step from being taken. But, let me start at the beginning.


At the age of 15, I was 5’4” tall, 89 pounds and couldn’t walk when my doctors finally diagnosed me with Celiac Disease. They told me I was the second reported case of the disease in all of Tennessee. What I learned from my journey of health to sickness and back again was the immense power of food. From the myriad of food-related symptoms, including foggy brain and lowered energy, food is key to everything.


Celiac Disease taught me nourishment isn’t about calories, it is about the right calories. And it doesn’t matter if you get the wrong calories because you are Celiac, allergic or eating nutrition-poor foods, like highly processed, high-carb snacks. My disease also taught me there is no way we can expect anyone to reach their potential or improve their position in life without proper nourishment.


So, I spent my 20’s and 30’s working on Capitol Hill and for various nonprofits to improve nutrition for low-income kids. It seemed obvious: if you want to help people improve their lot in life, you have to start with food and shelter. I picked food. We had some great successes and great failures working with Congress. As I started my 40’s, though, efforts to improve child nutrition through public programs reached a point where it seemed to me the best place to work to leverage mass improvement in eating habits was the marketplace.


If I could somehow catalyze companies to clean up their supply chain, boost the nutrition in their food, and embrace real food over processed, that would move the needle faster than working through public policy. But companies respond to consumer demand, so it has to be done by educating and empowering the consumer TO demand. At the same time, I was also struggling with the challenge of funding my own nonprofit A Better Course (at that time called Campaign for Better Nutrition). I simply didn’t have time to write grants and fundraise and advocate for cleaner food and better food justice.


In addition to these two issues, I had a new personal struggle. My kids were clearly gluten intolerant and one was lactose intolerant too. Given my dietary restrictions and interests, I was pretty good at providing them a healthy diet that met their needs. But then, two children at our elementary school developed severe nut allergies, so the school abruptly banned peanuts and tree nuts, our go-to healthy snacks.


The explosion of nut- and other food-related allergies is a relatively new phenomena, and the marketplace has not responded quickly. So finding healthy, convenient snacks that meet the restrictions of our school community in addition to our own has been nearly impossible. The convenient “allergy-friendly” choices out there are mostly highly processed, high-carb foods that lacked the protein and healthy fats my kids and their classmates need to develop strong minds and bodies. And it wasn’t just me struggling with this challenge. In our school alone, there were now 250 families all having to work around the school’s restrictions and their family restrictions—from diabetes to kosher to lactose intolerance. Parents wanted a better solution.


So I decided to approach all my dilemmas with one solution—I would start a company to make what all the parents I knew were asking for: organic, convenient, nutritious snacks that kids love to eat AND meet all the common dietary restrictions, like food allergies and intolerances, as well as low-glycemic (for diabetics), vegan, and kosher diets. And to give parents extra confidence, whether they are buying for their own kids or the whole class or team, I decided to test every batch of our products for allergen cross contact and give consumers access to the results through our QR and SMS (text) codes on every package. I call it conversational packaging.


This is a pioneering level of food safety and transparency that no other company is offering. But they could offer it, quite easily. In an era where we can download emails and surf the web on our wrist, shouldn’t we be able to scan our can of soup to see if there are any measurable allergens in it that could send our child or us to the ER? And, if the people and companies involved in our food system start cleaning up their act when it comes to allergen cross contact, you can bet there will be spill-over benefits for food safety across the board.


Frankly, it would be impossible to clean up the U.S. food system through public policy. It’s too fragmented. The tomatoes for your pasta sauce were grown in many different fields, shipped on dozens of trucks, mixed in one of several facilities, cooked somewhere else and shipped again on dozens of trucks. This is part of why food borne illnesses are so hard to trace.


But if we could get consumers to demand that all companies test their products for allergen contamination and report it to customers, companies themselves would demand their suppliers become more accountable and the ripple would go all the way down the chain. This would have implications far beyond allergens because it would improve traceability and company communication with customers across the board. Product recalls could come out of the 1982 fax machine they are stuck in and communicated immediately through conversational packaging. And, this communication could prove critical beyond product recalls.


Imagine we have a terrorism attack on our food supply, an unfortunate but possible event. If companies have conversational packaging, like QR codes or SMS, they can immediately communicate with customers as to whether their products are safe to eat. This would help decrease the impact of the attack immensely, keep people safely fed during the crisis, and prevent a lot of waste.


And, getting back to my original goals, how better to improve nutrition for low-income kids than to improve the entire food system? (To complete the plan, my new company, ZEGO, donates 5% of revenues to A Better Course to educate and advocate for improved food safety and healthy food access.)


So, if you ask me why I created a company for “hysterical people,” I say I did it to prevent people from becoming hysterical. Because when it comes to food, we are all one short step away from being that person, food allergies or not.


Colleen Kavanagh is the CEO of ZEGO, an allergy friendly superfood company and the Executive Director of A Better Course, a nonprofit advocating for a cleaner food supply and better nutrition for low-income children.

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