Is this really healthy? (Hint: No)
I joined Co-Founder and CTO Jason Ryder at Joywell Foods - formerly called Miraculex - in September 2019 to continue my professional journey leading purpose driven enterprise. I had been at Bulletproof 360 for nearly 4 years and after working closely with Bulletproofs founder Dave Asprey I was deeply steeped in the world of ketogenic diets, intermittent fasting, and most notably the evils of sugar. The last point — why we should avoid sugar above all else — seems very obvious to me now as I guzzle my MCT infused Bulletproof Coffee, but in reality, it’s not obvious to most people and when I look retrospectively, I’m no exception.
Not unlike many in their 40’s, I’ve been on health & wellness journey, not only professionally but personally. If I learned anything, what I learned is that everything I learned as a Gen Xer in my 20’s was completely debunked by the time I got to age 40.
In my 20’s, circa 1997, every morning I was inhaling a blueberry muffin sprinkled with granulated sugar and washing it down with a carton of OJ. Despite my growing waistline, I was just living the mantra of ‘low fat, high carb’. Who cares how much sugar is in a muffin? I’m avoiding fat. Just add a salad at some point and I will be fine. My usual go-to foods weren’t much better — fruity yogurt parfaits with granola, ‘healthy’ smoothies made with an apple juice base, sweetened dried fruits, fries with loads of sugar-laden ketchup and not to mention the other carbs I was consuming — chips, rice, and loads of naan bread.
I gained 15–20 lbs. I’m a small person, so the additional weight was more than palpable. So, I exercised more, lost weight and got back on track. But I still had yet to figure out the role of sugar in my diet.
Fast forward to November 2011, I’m at Starbucks and I’ve just been assigned to the rebrand of Evolution Fresh, a newly acquired juice purveyor using HPP (high pressure pasteurization) technology. To understand the juicing world, I over-consume the online universe of juices and buy every legit juice-based diet book. Despite learning about green juices and why they are all the rage, I still don’t see the harm of regularly drinking fruit-based smoothies and straight up citrus juices, many of which have 20+ grams of sugar in an 8oz serving — which is about half a bottle.
It’s only when a ‘parallel trifecta’ hits me — my brother extolling the benefits of the Paleo diet, getting hooked on CrossFit, and starting my adventure at Bulletproof — that I realize my understanding of food was wrong all along. Reducing my sugar to more reasonable volumes not only helped accelerate my recovery after workouts, but it helped eliminate the constant cravings that I had prior.
While I’m putting these diet puzzle pieces together, I become a parent to two kids. It becomes abundantly clear how hard it is to keep their sugar intake down. Anything equating to convenience — pouches of baby food, yogurt tubes, ‘fruit’ snacks — are just alternatives for sugar. And if it’s not sugar, it’s salt (which is entirely another story).
I think about how long this journey has taken me (about two decades) and the fact that Americans are still getting fatter and sicker. There are many contributing factors that got us to this point, but there’s no denying sugar’s role. According to the WHO, the number of people with diabetes grew from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014. Between 1977 and 2010, sugar consumption by American adults has increased by 30%. Last year a study was published linking sugary drinks to increased risk for cancer.
I don’t believe telling consumers to simply eat less sugar is a solution — our addiction runs so deep. If it were that easy, we wouldn’t be looking at such terrifying stats. And even if it were that simple there are at least 61 monikers for sugar, many of which might not be obvious to the average consumer. According to UCSF’s SugarScience team, 74% of packaged foods include added sugars. And products regularly marketed as being healthy are actively obfuscating what’s really inside.
Joywell Foods mission is to address the fact:
(1) consumers are reluctant to give up the foods they love, and
(2) the foods they love have too much sugar.
Of course this doesn’t change the fact that we should all be eating more fresh foods every day, but given the volume of packaged foods we consume habitually — especially right after the first COVID shutdown when food options were more scarce — we are all better served having options that support our well-being.
One might ask, aren’t there plenty of low sugar options using sucralose or aspartame or natural alternatives such as stevia, monkfruit, and the like? Yes, it is true, there are a growing number of alternatives but none of them have served as meaningful substitutes. Not only do alternative sweeteners taste lousy but they also create other health issues some of which can be similar to sugar. Whether it’s the health impact or the taste, consumers are making compromises.
At Joywell Foods, our team is focused on building a sweet fruit protein portfolio derived from real, exotic fruits. We have identified several naturally sweet proteins that share a very similar flavor profile to sugar, but without the negative health effects. The uniqueness of these proteins is in their potency — up to 5,500 times sweeter than sugar on a weight basis — requiring a tiny amount for the desired sweetness in many consumer food applications. In addition, these sweet protein ingredients digest easily unlike other alternative sweeteners, such as sugar alcohols, which are known to cause gastrointestinal distress.
Our proprietary technology platform enables us to scale the production of these naturally sweet proteins for use as food ingredients. With recent breakthroughs in synthetic biology, we can produce many of these sweet protein ingredients at high volume and low cost through fermentation — much like brewing beer. As we build the technology platform, we are continually testing the applications of these sweet proteins to understand in what foods they taste best. Ultimately, we firmly believe we must win on taste. If consumers don’t feel a sacrifice, we’ve succeeded in eliminating a ‘sugar consumption occasion’ while quenching a consumer’s taste buds.
As Jason and I look ahead to rest of 2020 and into 2021, we are excited about our ability to make a positive impact with our sweet fruit proteins. We are biased, but the feedback on our test concepts have been beyond positive and we can see a pathway to getting product into consumers’ hands. And despite having a bad reputation with regards to nutrition, we are impressed with the engagement we’ve seen from the incumbent CPG players on the topic of sugar reduction and their motivation to look in the mirror. It would be easy to be greedy during this pandemic, but it’s clear we all acknowledge that we all play a part in raising the water level of our nation’s wellness.
I would be remiss if I didn’t extend my sincere gratitude to our team who continued to put the pedal to the metal throughout this pandemic. And this extends to our investors — Evolv Ventures, Khosla Ventures, SOSV, Alumni Ventures Group, Mehta Ventures, Plug and Play and Hemisphere — for helping us along the way and navigating a fundraise during a unprecedented time in history. I cannot wait to see what’s ahead.