It’s exciting to see how much things have changed in the plant-based food movement. The offerings have evolved from the very basic to now having places where you can find advanced and specialty vegan foods all over the country and the world. On today’s show, Max Goldberg joins Jason Wrobel and Whitney Lauritsen to talk about organic living and how it has evolved into what it is today. Max is one of the nation’s leading organic food experts. He is also the Founder of Organic Insider, a weekly newsletter read by influential CEOs in the food and wellness industries. Max takes a look at the plant-based food movements seen today and answers some questions on people’s current consciousness on organic living and produce.
Listen to the podcast here
Organic Living: An Inside Look With Max Goldberg
Max, I am looking forward to talking with you. It’s been a long time coming. One thing I was curious about how long we knew each other, I went and searched for your name on my computer. The first thing I found or as far back as it went was 2010, I have an email record of you following me on Twitter. We have officially known each other for over ten years. I was diving further back into our history. I saw that I’ve been a member of your organic LinkedIn group since 2012, and that led us to connect and that all happened during the Natural Products Expo because you had that wonderful organic industry meetup group there.
Another thing I had no recollection of was that in 2013, I won some contest you did with Suja. It’s funny because I don’t recall getting a Suja prize package. I won some giveaway that you did. As we’re going to touch upon a lot in the episode, we’ll talk about organic. That is a big reason that you and I know each other. We also have a lot of overlap with juice companies. In addition to Suja, there’s also Cocobeet that you introduced me and Jason to in Boston. I grew up in Massachusetts and you’re living in Boston. Do you still run the Pressed Juice Directory? Is that still active?
First off, thanks for having me on. To answer your question, it is still up but it’s not active.
Do people still go in there and search in things for juice companies?
There’s a minimal amount of traffic, not a huge amount. You can get pressed juice everywhere now, but in 2010, 2011 or 2012, it was novel. Juice Press opened in 2010. Organic Avenue opened a few years before that. It was very different back then were finding pressed juice was not that easy.
I’m glad that you brought up Juice Press too. I imagine Jason’s getting a little excited behind the scenes hearing us talk about that because Juice Press was such a special thing. Every time we would go to New York City that was our must-go-to. They have one specific juice there that I love that had dandelion. I imagine they still have a lot of the original juices. I haven’t been to New York in a while.
They’ve rotated a lot of them. They used to have a juice called Drink Your Salad, which I loved. They discontinued that. It was a gazpacho, but it wasn’t chunky or thick. It was more on the thinner side.
I remember drinking a lot of Mother Earth. To be quite honest, I am more of a smoothie connoisseur when I go to Juice Press where I always loved their fresh superfood smoothie. Every single time I’ve been to Juice Press going back to when I lived in New York, I moved out in what 2006, I would always go in, get a smoothie, a juice, a shot and that was my trifecta. It’s interesting you bring up Organic Avenue because one of the first jobs that I interviewed for out of culinary school was with Doug Evans there when he was running it and they had their one location on the Lower East Side. I’ve got some history with Organic Avenue as well.
I don’t feel like that my favorite drink at Juice Press was called Mother Earth. Do you remember any of the others? Jason and I both love to drink the same one.
No, because I would rotate so many of their offerings that I didn’t necessarily have something that I would stick with every single time. I don’t remember the name.
It is interesting to go back to what you were saying about how much things have changed. We see this a lot in the plant-based food movement how much has evolved, the offerings that are available. Back in the day, it was such a novelty to be able to get certain things. In fact, I was watching an old video of mine from 2013. It was amusing to me because I was so excited about having the vegan options mentioned on the menu and they were very basic. In 2020, most places you can find are advanced and specialty vegan foods all over the country and the world. That’s happening with unprocessed and healthy food in general. How about in terms of organic? How much has shifted in your viewpoint in the past many years?
The biggest thing that has changed is people’s acceptance of it. I’ve been eating close to 100% organic since 2001. I remember back then, it was difficult to find organic places and it caused a lot of problems with my family and friends. I remember my father saying to me, “You’re never going to be able to date anyone because they’re not going to eat like you. None of these women want to eat all organic.” That’s changed very much where a lot of people want to eat organic and it’s not a fight to find people want to eat organic. There’s been a real change in the consciousness of people. When you go to cities, finding organic restaurants or finding organic juice bars, it’s not everywhere, but it’s not as challenging as it was. You can go to most places now and find organic options.
It’s amazing that the access that we have especially with the internet and getting things delivered. There are companies like Thrive Market that make it easy to press a button and order things, or even in your local area, you can use Instacart or Postmates and get food delivered. It’s longer an issue of not being able to find something or not being able to easily have it sent to you. Even in the case of juices, you can get things delivered. Is Suja still doing delivery or are there any other companies that you know that are great organic delivery services?People's demand for food has not changed, but how it's being distributed has dramatically changed. Click To Tweet
I think Suja may have stopped their deliveries because of COVID. I’m not 100% sure, but obviously Thrive is a big one. To be perfectly honest, I love going to the grocery store and food shopping. I understand why people do it. Some people might not have access to it and some people might not have time. For me, going to the supermarket is one of my great pleasures. What’s unique for all of us is that we can go to the supermarket and the brands that we enjoy, we know the people behind it and we know the stories behind it. That makes it even more fun. We can go to the market and know, “This brand is doing things the right way. They have a new project in Ecuador. This is where they’re sourcing their cacao from.” It’s a very different experience because we’re in the industry, we go to the shows and we meet all the founders. It brings a whole new dimension to food shopping. We are in the food industry. This is what we love doing.
I’m in total agreement with you in the sense that with traveling, one of my absolute favorite things to do is visit new natural markets, organic markets, and the restaurants in different cities that we travel to. Whether Whitney and I are on a business trip or we’re coming out to Expo East or any variety of touring dates that we’ve had in the past. It’s such a thrill for me in particular to see small batch local brands that we can’t get in Los Angeles. If I see a new organic kraut or a new brand of kombucha or something innovative and unique with great packaging that’s a unique to that local area, I flip out. It’s one of my favorite things. One thing that I’ve backed away from, probably because of some of the egregious long lines outside of some of the natural stores here, I’ve been getting food delivery.
I’ve been using Imperfect Produce this whole time because they have an option where you can select only organic produce in their box. I find that the prices are phenomenal and they’re sending me food that is cosmetically imperfect that would sometimes be thrown away or composted at the grocery level. I love their mission and getting a fresh box of produce every week literally at my doorstep has been something that I don’t know that I want to go away from. The quality of what they’ve been sending me has exceeded my expectations.
The quality is very high and it’s organic, just not perfect-looking. Is that what it is?
That’s exactly correct. If I get a batch of organically-grown Fuji apples, there’s going to be some indentations or some spotty marking or things that aren’t going to fit with people’s aesthetic preferences for produce looking perfect. It’s interesting the psychology of that. When we go in and people are conditioned to gravitate toward what they perceive as a perfect piece of produce, but these apples, the celery and the eggplant and all the great produce that I get, the flavor is phenomenal because it’s organic. A lot of it is from local LA farms in some cases. Even though it’s cosmetically not up to that perfection aesthetic standard, the flavors are as phenomenal as you would expect from local organic produce.
One of the things that’s happening with COVID is we’re all experiencing the way we’re getting our foods is dramatically changing. We’re probably trying things that we weren’t trying before. Like what the experience that you’re having with Imperfect Produce. That has also had a very severe impact on what’s going on in the country because people’s demand for food has not changed, but how it’s being distributed has dramatically changed. There’ve been massive problems in the supply chain with milk being dumped and vegetables being plowed over. There are massive issues at the meat-packing facilities. What’s also happening and this is something I’ve been writing about in Organic Insider is we depend heavily on these H-2A visa workers, primarily from Latin America. There have been a lot of COVID outbreaks in these packing facilities, primarily fruit and vegetables.
One of the stories I wrote, I spoke with this organic apple grower in Michigan, who said, “If I can’t get my H-2A visa worker, my business is done. I’m not going to be able to produce much of anything.” What this crisis has done is hopefully raised awareness of the importance of many of these food workers and food laborers out in the farms who are essential to us getting food, but they do not get the respect, treatment and wages that they deserve. There was a story out that there were outbreaks in 60 different packing plants. I’m not talking to meat, it’s in vegetables as well. There was a movement in Britain where they were having a public campaign. They needed 70,000 workers to help pick the crops in the fields.
I feel very ignorant about this so I’m grateful for your perspective on this. That’s one of the things I love about you and especially your Organic Insider newsletters because I feel like I can stay informed, but you have so much knowledge and awareness about what’s going on in this industry. I don’t know if you’ve heard much about this, but I’ve been seeing more people talking about brands that are using prison labor. Have you done any research on that? I want to learn more about what’s going on with that too.
I haven’t done a huge amount on prison labor, but there’s an issue with chocolate, not as with the organic brands because organic brands generally have scored well on these chocolate scorecards in terms of child labor. It’s more what the big mass-market nonorganic brands. I’ve heard more around the cacao or cocoa than I have with prison labor.
I feel like it’s incredibly timely too because we’re in this time where there’s a lot of awareness on equality, justice and becoming more conscious of how other people are treated. That doesn’t go by the color of our skin, our gender or sexuality, but it’s also in our careers and our jobs. There’s also an ongoing conversation about people coming in from different countries to work here and the draw that America has as a country. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that are happening in this country that many of us aren’t aware of and it comes down to privilege. For those of us who are on the side of a certain amount of privilege, we can be very ignorant about what’s happening to people that aren’t as privileged.
Part of our privilege is our access to food where we live, our finances and our ability to purchase things. All three of us have the privilege of purchasing mainly organic or in your case, Max, you’re one of the closest to living a 100% organic lifestyle. That to me is a huge privilege because as we know, it’s can often be more expensive to buy organic food or products in general. As we’ve been talking about, getting access to them, Jason mentioned in a recent episode about food deserts and for those of us that live in big cities like Los Angeles, Boston, New York, San Francisco in the United States, there are many cities where we take it for granted, and our education is a privilege as well. The three of us are educated and we have a lot of connections. We can call up a friend and say, “Where do you get your organic produce from?” Not everybody has access to that information or that awareness.
That’s an important thing to touch upon and I want to encourage the audience to be educated. That’s part of why we brought Max on here is because he is such a wealth of information. If you as an audience have not yet dived very far into organic living and these issues, like the workers that are producing our food and other products that we are purchasing, I highly recommend Max’s work and going to him. You spend hours and hours every week researching for this which is so impressive, but it shows your big passion for it. I’m very grateful. You got into organic in about 2001. When did you get into it professionally?
At the end of 2009, the beginning of 2010. I was living in Boston at the time and someone said to me, “There’s this organic trade show. It’s happening right now.” I didn’t even know that there were trade shows for organic. If I had known that in 2001, I probably would have been in the industry since then. I remember this so vividly and I got the name of the woman who ran the press room in the Expo East going on in Boston. I called her up. I told her who I was and I said, “I don’t have a website, nor business cards. I have nothing, but can I come to the show?” She said, “Come in, call me and I’ll take care of you.”
This was 2009. I think Twitter had started and Facebook was in the very early days. There was no Instagram and people weren’t begging to get into these trade shows like what’s happening now. I remember that very vividly but when I first got into the industry, as most people who get into organic, they get in because they don’t want to eat pesticides on their food. I think that’s the primary reason people come to organic. Once I started getting into the industry, I started learning what was going on with food politics, I could not help but be involved. Back in 2011 or 2012 or 2013, GMO labeling was a big deal. I was very involved in GMO labeling and I put on fundraisers to raise money for these campaigns, for the federal campaign and the state ones.
There was a real shift for me in terms of why I’m doing this because I became much more of an activist, which I never thought that I would become. It was not in my nature. As time has gone on, if I could be writing about food politics every week on organic insider, I would be doing it, but I know that that’s not what people want to hear every week. I need to give my audience in pieces. I don’t want to give them too much and overwhelm them. I know people want to mix different topics so I try to do that, but when I got in the industry and learned what was going on, I said, “I can’t sit back and not be involved.”
That’s guided everything that I do. It’s about promoting and protecting organic and that’s why I do what do. Getting back to what we talked about with these workers that are not being treated well, something that I’ve been writing about for the last few years is a new certification and organic called the Regenerative Organic Certified. It’s a brand-new certification. The three primary backers are Dr. Bronner’s, Rodale Institute and Patagonia. Those are the three entities that got this going in the US. One of the components of this new certification is you have to have USDA-certified organic as the baseline.
If you are a brand and you want to get this certification, you have to be USDA-certified organic. That’s the baseline. They have provisions for soil health, animal welfare and social justice. The social justice component, it addresses the fair treatment of workers, living wages, and that’s a timely component where brands want to take care of the workers on these farms. They can get ROC-certified. It’s a new certification that is going to grow in importance because I believe it’s poised to become the new gold standard in organic replacing the USDA organic seal. There are many problems with the organic seal. It’s the best system we’ve had up until this point. I am only going to buy organic, but there are a lot of problems.
One of the big problems we face is hydroponics. Growing vegetables in water is a complete violation of Section 6513 of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. It’s that provision and the USDA is allowing it. What it’s doing is it’s putting out of business small farmers that are growing in the soil and organic is all about the soil. In this provision that I referenced, it says that farmers have to have a management plan that fosters soil fertility. Growing tomatoes and buckets of water have nothing to do with soil fertility and yet the USDA is allowing this.
Why do some farmers do that instead of soil? What is the draw to them and what are the downsides of it for the industry?
They do it because of efficiency. Growing in a bucket of water that you can control the environment is much easier than growing in the soil where it’s you can’t control the environment as much. It’s about efficiency and productivity and scale.
That’s such a huge issue in general with food. Part of my passion is raising awareness around this. It’s so fascinating to me because as you mentioned, the three of us are pretty deeply steeped in this food industry. We go to these trade shows and we’re getting more educated as a result. I noticed that people that aren’t as involved in the food industry, the way they make their food purchases is a lot based on marketing, if not mainly. You are talking about child labor and issues with chocolate. Chocolate is such a huge problem for a long time. It’s getting better in some ways or it’s easier to find organic chocolate and fair-trade chocolate, which is wonderful.
Coffee is a huge issue as well. The fair trade and the shade-grown and all these different elements of coffee and the coffee is such a huge industry. I find that it’s so common for people to go to the store or go to a cafe or a restaurant and purchase whatever is cheap, easy, and whatever they’re used to. You look at a company like Starbucks, which I think that they are making incremental changes, but the average person is getting their coffee from Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts because that’s what they know. There’s so much that goes into this and we have to raise our awareness. The reason that we make these decisions is because life can feel so overwhelming.
It’s like, “I want to go get my coffee, I like the way this taste, this is what I’m used to, I know what to expect when I go in, or when I go through the drive-thru,” and “I know how much it’s going to cost me.” People get in these rhythms with it because it feels too overwhelming to research things like how your tomatoes are grown. Part of our mission here with this show and one of our reasons for bringing you on the show is that we want to encourage people to incrementally grow their awareness because if we don’t, then it does become more challenging for these certifications. It’s a lot about supply and demand.
The biggest thing people need to be aware of is every time, you spend a dollar at the grocery store or online, you’re making a choice and voting with your dollar. That is one of the reasons I do not go to these trendy restaurants that maybe some of my friends want to go to. I’m not supporting Monsanto. I’m not giving them a dollar of my money. I know what they’re doing out there and I have no interest in supporting it. The biggest thing people can do is to be aware of what’s going on.
It starts with making one small change at a time, adapting to that, and then making another change. I remember when I first started to learn about organic food, which was somewhere around the beginning stages of my journey with veganism. I went vegan in 2003 and I’m proud of it. I felt like I was making such a big difference on the planet, for animals and my health. I would talk to my friends like, “Look at all these big changes I’m making and you should try this too.” One of my friends was very educated about organic. I remember this conversation we had and she was, “A, you’re buying a lot of processed vegan foods and that’s not so great on your health or the environment because you’re wasting a lot of packaging and processed foods can be detrimental even when they’re vegan and B, you should start to consider buying organic food.”
I remember at first feeling annoyed and it was like, “I’m already vegan. I felt like I’m making this big change. Isn’t this enough.” I had to take my time and when I felt ready, I started to learn about organic and started to feel passionate about that as well as genetically modified food. I’m not as committed to it as you are, but I get inspired when I hear from people like you. That makes me want to be more aware of my purchases. To be completely honest, sometimes I’m like, “I want to have this,” “It’s vegan, but it’s not organic and that’s okay because I feel like trying this.”Consumers are becoming more conscious about how they're spending their dollars and are supporting companies that are doing the right thing. Click To Tweet
A lot of the times my decisions come from that point, but I like having a reminder of why it’s important to buy organic because that brings me back to check in with myself. I’m so grateful for you bringing up the worker side of it because my heart goes out to all these incredible people that are growing our food and we don’t acknowledge them. I’ve watched a number of documentaries. It was about workers and fighting for justice and higher and better treatment. When you dig into all of this, it’s so important to know what’s going on behind the scenes and to humanize your food more.
We have a lot of awareness around the small business that keeps growing like support small businesses, or with Black Lives Matter, A lot of us are supporting businesses that are owned or run or founded by black people. We feel more empowered to do these things, but we have to remember that there are a lot of other factors that go into this and being aware of child labor or prison labor. Simply because as Max was saying, we can make simple shifts and it could simply be going to the grocery store and picking one brand over another. A lot of the time it’s not that much more expensive.
It does depend on where you shop, some stores certainly charge a lot more than others for things like organic. You might need to make a different shift to a grocery store or a restaurant. In a lot of cases, it might not be that hard for you to make those changes. It depends on where you live, but if you can make a small step and swap one brand for another, you can make a big change and contribute to all of these incredible businesses that need our support.
How we spend our dollars is very important. I think people who are not in the food industry, maybe they find some of this a little overwhelming and it’s taking it slow and making gradual change. They don’t necessarily need to go 100% organic tomorrow. They can go at their own pace and wherever they’re at. This is what I often tell people.
The interesting question that comes up for me in all this, in terms of food politics is humanizing our food supply and understanding where it’s coming from, who’s picking it, and how they’re treated. The tough thing that I think about is making systemic changes to food production. In the sense of, if we want to pay workers a living wage, especially you talked about people on certain kinds of visas or for me, starting in the restaurant industry as a chef, lots of undocumented workers and barely being paid a living wage. Eight people existing in an apartment to make ends meet or worse living conditions than that. It’s a bit of a Catch-22 because of the political socioeconomic factors.
I’m in full support of people being paid a living wage where depending on where they exist, even if it is city life having their basic requirements met of food, housing, shelter, warmth, and air conditioning. The basics to live a good and decent life. If you pay workers a living wage that might lead to prices being higher, and if there’s a resistance already to some people in our society of organics already expensive. If we pay workers $15 an hour instead of $10, that drives up the cost of food to compensate for the higher wages of your workers.
I’m curious as an open discussion with both of you, is it something that we can do to make headway in terms of removing the subsidies from genetically-modified foods, moving the subsidies from the corn wheat, soy and oats that we use as feed crops to livestock? From a political socioeconomic standpoint, what do you think are some of the aspects that could be revised, tweaked, so that we can pay people living wage, but not necessarily drive food prices through the roof in doing so?
The big GMO seed and chemical companies have tremendous influence in Washington, DC and they get favorable treatment. The farmers that are growing the GE corn and soy are the ones that often get the bailout money and the small farmers usually don’t. We also have an inherent conflict in organic because the two main problems are affordability and accessibility. If you want to make things more affordable, that means you’ve got to drive the price down. That’s one of the things that has happened in the organic industry. There’s been a race to the bottom because Whole Foods were the only show in town and then organic became popular and you can find it at every supermarket now.
There’s tremendous price pressure that retailers put on brands because they want to get customers and they want to offer good prices. There’s a race to the bottom. We have this cultural assumption that food is supposed to be cheap because we grew up at a time where you go to fast food and it’s cheap at $0.99. There’s this assumption that food is supposed to be cheap. Food isn’t cheap. It is medicine. We should be paying more for our food. There’s this cultural stigma that food is supposed to be cheap, and I’m not sure how we get out of that until people realize that we need to be paying more for our food because you get what you pay for.
I’m so glad that you said that, Max. Jason taught me this great term, “You pay with your purse or you pay with your person.” It’s saying, “You can save money, but your health and the health of many other people, this whole ripple effect we’ve been talking about is greatly affected.” If you are willing to spend a little bit more, it can make a massive difference. When I wrote my book, Healthy, Organic Vegan on A Budget, I went into a lot of the statistics around how much money people typically spend.
It was fascinating to go through those numbers. I’ve been wanting to go update it and see if things have changed much because it’s been about many years since it came out. At the time I felt amazed by a couple of different things. A) It was seeing how much money people were spending on food and B) It was finding out that you can eat organic inexpensively. That was the inspiration for writing that book was Jason and I did an experiment for a whole week. We saw how inexpensively we could eat if we made our food and bought ingredients that are plant-based and organic.
We were able to eat for less than $5 a day for three meals. That is the total expense. It was incredibly inexpensive and it opened up my eyes to the fact that it depends on what you’re buying. If you’re going to go to a restaurant, organic food is generally more expensive. If you go to a place and get packaged, processed food, it’s going to be a little bit more expensive. If you get basic ingredients like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, dried beans and grains, you can make incredible nourishing food and eat very inexpensively.
It requires a reframe here. I also think that’s the way to go if you want to save money. I love what you’re saying here is shifting our perception of the value of food and seeing it as medicine. That was another thing I put in my book was that we spend a lot of money on healthcare, but if we’re willing to change the way that we eat and invest some more money into the way that we eat, we may spend less money on healthcare overall. We might not need to take certain medications or maybe we can reduce them because the food becomes our medicine. Maybe we go to the doctor less than we can save a lot of money. One thing I recommend is doing an audit of your life and seeing how much are you spending on food? How much are you spending on healthcare? Where are you shopping? Where are you eating? What are you buying? If you want to make some shifts there, if you’re open to it, you can find it. It doesn’t have to be that expensive. It’s putting more money into food and less into other factors of your life.
Buying in the bulk sections, going to Farmers’ Markets and cooking at home, you’re 90% there. If you do those things, you are going to cut your expenses down in a very meaningful way.
I think that COVID-19 has helped shift some of our perspectives around food because people are realizing that if they don’t go out to the bar or with their friends all the time, they can save a lot of money. There were so many things that were close. People are dependent and going to places like Starbucks, but if you start brewing your own coffee at home, you can save so much money and you can buy organic. Buying organic coffee beans is $10 depending on where you’re buying it from and what brand. You can get lots of coffee drinks out of that versus you go to Starbucks and $10 gets you 2 or 3 drinks and they’re not organic. You just have to be willing to make some of those shifts there and ultimately your wellbeing comes down to setting your priorities. I hope for the audience, they’re starting to view organic as more of a priority. Once you set a priority, it becomes easier for you to make it work in your lifestyle.
I’ve certainly paid attention to working as a chef for so many years. Max, you mentioned that there’s this expectation that food is supposed to be cheap because of the conditioning of we grew up with cheap fast food, highly subsidized foods from the government, and junk food. Dr. Gabriel Cousens said, “In terms of our food system, we live in a culture of death.” We’ve been raised in that where things are not healthy for us.
In terms of how people perceive how food is supposed to be cheap, especially here in the US there’s a sweeping expectation that portion sizes are supposed to be massive. If I don’t have a giant plate of food in front of my face, “I’m not going to be satisfied by this.” Part of the education that I love to disseminate to people is shifting from this idea that the size of the portion on your plate is the thing that’s going to you up versus the nutrient density and the caloric density of the food that’s in front of you.
When you prepare something organic, local, and extremely nutrient-dense, putting the nutrients together in a very specific combination. On top of that organic local food tasting better, having a much more vibrant bouquet of flavors. One of my greatest pleasures is seeing someone have that shift of, “I don’t have this massive giant plate of food.” It might be half that size or a third of that size, but because of the nutrient density and the dynamic flavors, people feel satisfied. I think that’s also a huge shift for people in their expectations of what satisfying food ought to be.
You bring up a good point because that does not get a lot of discussions, portion sizes, finding food, what foods are nutrient and satisfying to you? It is largely about portions. When we used to be able to go to restaurants, I would hear, “They didn’t give me enough food,” rather than, “This is nutrient-dense.” The whole conversation around food is very complex and a lot of people don’t understand it and haven’t been around it enough. It can be very intimidating. The three of us have had the good fortune to work in the industry and are very comfortable with it. I remember when I first got exposure to raw food, it was raw organic, plant-based food. I was in Miami at the time and it was around 2006 or 2007. I didn’t know what it was. I was learning. It takes a while to get comfortable with this stuff and to understand what we want to eat or should be eating and getting knowledge about, “No, this is the right choice about certain foods or diets.” It takes a long time.
How do you see the role of people in some ways, going back to the Victory Gardens Movement of World War II, when the federal government was encouraging people for food security reasons to raise their gardens? The family I grew up in certainly had that in the 1950s during the war, my mom had a garden in Detroit where I grew up. Gardening has always been something that I grew up with. It’s been interesting to peruse social media, articles and people even outside our industry, people who aren’t directly in the food industry to see how many people are planting herb gardens, strawberries and tomatoes. It seems that along with quarantine baking and people making more food at home, which I’m very happy to hear. People are getting to growing their food and finally doing it in a very serious way. I’m curious about what your experience is with that, how you feel about people being ultra-local and growing organically? Have you gone down that road and how do you feel about it?
I’m a big fan of it. Unfortunately, I’ve lived in cities pretty much my whole life in apartment buildings and have not had the ability to do that, to have a big or even a small backyard to grow my food. It’s an important development because what it’s doing is it’s connecting people to the food that they’re eating and they’re asking more questions. That’s the biggest thing is that they’re asking more questions and getting more involved in it. Ultimately, that’s going to lead to better choices and better questions about where their food is coming from. I interviewed this organic seed company in Vermont and they said, it’s never been this busy ever, and they said that it was a ten-day turnaround time.
Before COVID hit, if you ordered, we could pretty much get it out the same day. There’s been a huge resurgence in this because it’s important that people can become more self-sustaining. The biggest thing as I alluded to was, it is connecting them to their food more, and they are starting to ask more questions about, “I’m growing tomatoes in my backyard, but these tomatoes I’m buying at the store, how are they grown? Are they sprayed with chemicals? Because I’m not spraying them with chemicals.” The biggest thing it is doing is it’s starting to connect people to food and asking these better questions.
Another thing I want to touch on with you is your experience in the investment world. I was doing some research on things that are trending and a lot of people seem to be interested in socially responsible investing conscious consumerism, and sustainable finance. That ties in to this discussion as well because there’s consumer side, which is that conscious consumerism. There is a lot of talk about conscious capitalism as well and there’s also an investment side and starting the business side of things. What have you seen over the years on that side of things? Like talking to a lot of people that are starting these businesses or investing in these businesses and how that’s affecting the availability of organic and sustainable conscious food?
What I think is happening is that consumers, particularly the Millennials are be becoming much more conscious about how they’re spending their dollars and wanting to support companies that are doing the right thing. If the younger consumers are more conscious of how they’re spending their money, it ultimately is going to lead to companies performing better and being better investments. This is where the world is going is that people, brands or companies, there’s a lot more accountability than there ever was. How they’re treating their employees and their vendors? How they’re operating as an overall business? Those are the ones that people want to support more. Frankly, consumers are demanding more responsible companies.
That all ties into the awareness of this. What do you think is coming next? Since you are so involved with the organic industry and also aware of what’s happening on the investment side, which has always interesting because you can learn a lot if you start to study things like the stock market and you see what’s affecting businesses. I’m often paying attention to brands like Beyond Meat. It’s been fascinating to see their success as a plant-based company and seeing the growing trends. As I mentioned, it’s so interesting to have been in the vegan industry for so long on the media and publisher side of things, because you get a lot of announcements about new products coming out. You go to the store and you see all of these new developments and if you pay attention to the stock market, it’s also interesting to see how consumer purchases shaping things, but also the investments are shaping things. What trends are you seeing? What do you think is coming up in the organic industry?
They’re not a lot of publicly-traded organic food companies, so that’s number one. The big food companies have a real problem on their hands because they know that organic food is the future. They want to be organic. I think many of these and people who work these big companies understand that they want to be moving into that space. Organic tends to be smaller margins, not as profitable, and higher costs. It’s a real existential dilemma for these big food companies because they have multi multibillion-dollar valuations based on all the GMO or non-organic food that they’re selling. It’s a real problem because they have the valuation they do because of these legacy brands. There was an article in the New York Times of how people have been going back to these unhealthy processed brands. In general, I think these big food companies have a problem because they know that the value of their companies is the things that are slowing in growth. The area of growth is the organic products, but the margins there are not as profitable.The big controversy is when the non-GMO project started, people saw it as a bridge to going organic. It didn't end up being that way. Click To Tweet
Max, is brands like Beyond Meat are not organic, but they’re non-GMO. Is non-GMO a step in the right direction or is it a way for brands to look like they’re being more responsible? It seems like it might be easier to be non-GMO in assumption? A lot of these brands are getting certified for that. I wonder what’s holding them back from going organic.
This a big controversy in organic because when the non-GMO project started, people saw it as a bridge to going organic. It didn’t end up being that way because the price premium between non-GMO and organic was relatively similar. There’s confusion when people see non-GMO on a label, a lot of people think, “It’s okay. It’s non-GMO.” No, it only means no GMOs. It doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been sprayed with glyphosate or some of these other chemicals. That’s one issue. The other thing is that you see a lot of non-GMO labels on things that there’s no such thing as genetically engineered seaweed. You see the non-GMO label on that.
Unless you are aware of it and I think we’re up to maybe fifteen genetically engineered food products. There are the big ones are corn and soy canola, cottonseed, and sugar beet. That is one of the things when I go to the market, I’m like, “Why do these people have the non-GMO label on their product when it’s not organic when there is no genetically engineered?” Whatever the product might be of that product and yet they’ve got the non-GMO Project label on it. There are plenty of people who think, “It’s non-GMO, that’s good enough.”
I get into that mindset a lot myself. This is a good thing for me to reflect on further because the non-GMO certification label is pretty and eye-catching. Whenever I see it, I feel good like, “It’s not organic, but it is non-GMO.” Sometimes when I’m comparing brands, I don’t know what the latest is with Impossible Foods. I’m grateful that they exist, but I remember, I always thought that Beyond Meat had a little bit of a leg up because they were non-GMO.
To my current knowledge, I don’t know if Impossible Foods has made that shift yet, but again, that would be my mindset. If you go into, Beyond Meat’s website, they have a little FAQ section and people ask are they organic? They’re like, “No, but we are non-GMO.” I’m wondering is that like, “This is where we’re at right now,” or “It’s our marketing tactic.” It sounds like it could be one or the other, and it requires a lot of research and awareness about why these brands are using those terms.
For consumers out there who might be confused is if you see a non-GMO label on a package, look at the ingredients and then go do research, are these ingredients that the brand is using do genetically engineered versions of those ingredients exist? That’s one thing and that will tell you what’s going on here. Is this just a marketing label or are they doing it? Maybe if it’s like potatoes. There are potatoes that don’t brow. These genetic engineers are non-browning potatoes. If you see potatoes or potato chips in the supermarket, and it’s got the non-GMO label on it, that’s valid now and that wasn’t valid a few years ago. That’s an example of getting to understand what ingredients are genetically engineered and which ones are not, because then it will tell you a lot about the packaging and why that label is on there in the place.
It goes back to the overwhelm that you can feel, because then you hear that and you think, “I have to go look up all of these each and every ingredient to decide if the seeds are even worth it.” A lot of people that want an easy way to read labels. That’s why the certifications are so appealing because you can scan it without having to go and do your research on these things. It’s about finding the balance and depends on how passionate you are about it. Max, you’re certainly very passionate and you’re very informed. It’s also taken you years to get to this point.
As a reminder, for each of us, we’ve been steeped in this industry for a long time, and for the average consumer, they may be on a different, part of their journey. The other thing I’m curious to hear your input on is that when I was researching current trends, I saw the term genetically modified mosquitoes and I thought, “That’s interesting too.” It’s not an issue with food. It’s also our animals, other creatures, bugs and such being genetically modified. Do you have much information about the mosquito trend?
I think it was the EPA who gave the approval for parts of Texas and Florida for them to be released. They have to get local approval. I believe the Center for Food Safety has already filed lawsuits, but they’ve already released genetically engineered moths in New York State. Genetically engineered salmon have already been approved. When these things get released into the wild, there is no turning back. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Another thing that I wrote about is genetically engineered American chestnut trees and they’re saying that “We can put these trees in the forest and it’ll help us grow trees and make more paper.” We’re messing with Mother Nature here. It’s scary that people don’t seem to be too alarmed that once these things are out in the wild, there’s no turning back. It makes a lot of people in the organic industry very uneasy.
Can I ask a macro-level question on that subject and I’m curious from a perspective of human psychology and where we’ve evolved into in our current societal framework? Why do you feel that some people have a propensity to want to play God? I’m saying that not to lean toward any religious preference. I think, in terms of releasing these into the wild and not understanding how it’s going to affect our ecosystem, our planetary health, our human health. What do you think it is about people wanting to play God, create life and mess with DNA sequences? I’m not saying this from a shaming perspective. I’m genuinely curious, what in a person would feel compelled to do this? What do you think is psychologically or sociologically?
There are a few different reasons. One is I think some people don’t care. Another one is that all these decisions are driven by money and that’s a big part of it. There are some people like Bill Gates who is pushing GMOs in Africa and is a big Monsanto backer and is investing in all these synthetic biology, GMO 2.0 companies. People like him believe that technology is going to solve the world and can cure the world of everything. I think if you asked him, he would say, these technologies can be of tremendous help. There are people in all three areas there, but it’s the height of arrogance to think that we are a person or a scientist is smarter than human nature.
As we’ve seen with these genetically engineered crops, the big problem with these genetically engineered crops is they become tolerant to the chemicals that are sprayed on them. The big one is glyphosate. It is the primary ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup. They’ve designed these genetically engineered corn and soy crops so that when you spray them with glyphosate, with Roundup, it kills everything around the crop except the crop itself. The idea is we’re going to kill the weeds around the crop, but we’re not going to kill the crop itself.
Mother Nature is very smart and has adapted. What has happened is we have about 100 million acres of superweeds, profiled in the New York Times and every publication. These weeds have become resistant to Roundup and glyphosate and they’re bigger and they’re stronger weeds. The chemical companies are saying, “The answer is, let’s throw more toxic chemicals on them, stronger and more potent chemicals.” Getting back to your question, some of these people think that technology can solve all of our problems. What they don’t believe is that Mother Nature is smarter than we are. That’s been proven time and time again. All I got to do is look at all these millions of acres of superweeds that we have grown throughout America.
I appreciate you giving such an eloquent answer to my question. It is this battle of corporations that have public shell shareholders that are driven by profit versus an increasingly aware and conscious society that is becoming aware as we’ve discussed throughout this episode of human rights issues, fair living wages, practices and protecting human health. It seems that in many ways, we are at an interesting crossroads in human evolution. Where there’s one group of people that are taking ancient wisdom, ancient practices, and getting back to the roots of how we used to live generations ago.
Growing their food, canning and getting into more holistic remedies for health and you have the people you’re talking about that are very technocratic. At the expense of maybe short-term losses of human life or health, we’re trying to do something to ensure the sanctity of future generations. I’m curious if you feel there is a balance where advanced technologies can somehow meet with these ancient holistic practices and come to some balanced approach. How do you feel about that? The intersection of technology, ancient holistic remedies and methods and ways of living?
It’s a real balancing act of how much can we take from the past, take from the present, make our lives work and advance society in a sustainable way. What we’ve seen with the food supply is these new technologies are causing incredible harm. There’s no way around it.
Just to jump back to a previous point in our conversation where you talked about this new certification the regenerative organic that you’ve been working on and have some incredible backing. You mentioned Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s and who was the third entity?
It’s an organization called Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. If any of the audience is a fan of organic, make a pilgrimage to the Rodale Institute once we can go there. It’s where the organic food started in the US and the 1940s J.I. Rodale. It’s a 330-acre institution in Pennsylvania where they do side by side trials of organic and GMO crops to do yield tests. It’s a very special place. Rodale, Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s are the three primary backers of this Regenerative Organic Certified standard.
In terms of you rolling out this certification, two things. Number one, how difficult do you anticipate a consumer education being for this? We’ve mentioned non-GMO and USDA organic? I’m seeing labeling come up. One Degree Organic Foods has a certified glyphosate free label. They’re the first package I’ve seen with that. With all of these layers of certifications and also from a product packaging design with all of these logos, codes and certifications, what do you see the challenges in terms of consumer awareness and education with this new certification? The second question is what do you anticipate the rollout if you had to put a date on it? Is this something that’s going to be arriving by the end of 2020 or 2021? Give us an update on that also.
You touch on something that in the industry, a real issue is something called certification fatigue. People roll their eyes when they hear about a new certification because there are so many of them. There are vegan, keto, paleo, non-GMO and organic. You can fill your package with all these different certifications. Certification fatigue is a real deal. You mentioned One Degree, they have a glyphosate-free certification called BioChecked. The other certification for glyphosate is called Glyphosate Residue Free, which I’m involved with that certification and I help promote it. You have multiple certifications for glyphosate. That’s number one and it does get very confusing for the consumer.
They see all these different certifications. To back up when we were talking about non-GMO when you buy organic, that is non-GMO. The USDA organic seal, the program, they do not do the testing on high-risk ingredients that the non-GMO project does. When you’re buying organic, you’re buying a non-GMO product, but there may have been contamination or they don’t take into account high-risk products like canola corn or soy and that’s why you want to get organic and the non-GMO on those high-risk products.
I think there’s certification fatigue, number one. I think it makes it very challenging for the consumer and for the brands. When they think, “How many certifications do we have to put on here? Is this going to confuse the consumer?” In regards to the ROC, there are already ROC certified products on the market. If you go to PatagoniaProvisions.com, that’s a marketplace where they are curating ROC certified products and other ones that meet the standards but may not have the certification yet. Dr. Bronner’s has a ROC certified coconut oil, Nature’s Path has a ROC certified instant oatmeal. Patagonia has a spiced chili mango, dry goods product that they have that’s ROC certified. Over the last year, ROC has wrapped up its pilot program with nineteen different farms around the world.
There are a few that are coming onto the market and they are opening this up to any brand that’s interested in getting the certification. The challenge is building out the supply chain for ROC ingredients. Let’s say you’re a cereal company and you have three ingredients in your product. That may be doable to get the ROC certification. Dr. Bronner’s coconut oil, one ingredient. Nature’s Path, the instant oatmeal, one ingredient. One of the challenges with ROC is building out the supply chain. To go to the supermarket and to see hundreds of ROC products on the shelf, that’s not going to happen until the supply chain is built out.
You are going to see select products that have 1, 2 or 3 ingredients in them over the next year or two. It depends on the supply chain and the complexity of the product. One of the challenges that ROC does have is communicating with the consumer. What is regenerative organic certified mean? I don’t think most people know what regenerative means. MOST people don’t know what organic means. It’s a challenge that the certification has is, how do we educate the consumers about what our certification means? What does the label mean? Why they should be looking for this label?
Just touching on what regenerative agriculture is, there’s a great organization here in Los Angeles called Kiss the Ground that I’ve gone to some presentations and learn from. I’m going to go out on a limb and probably make a bet that most of the audience have not familiarized themselves with that. Could you go into not what it is and why is it advantageous for the health of the planet and the soil?
It’s primarily about capturing carbon from the environment and using the soil to do that. Regenerative agriculture is food that’s grown in a way that regenerates and improves the soil. What do sustainable means? It means keeping it the same. For a lot of people, that’s not good enough. It’s like, “We got to make the soil better after we use it. We want to improve it.” That’s what it means. It has to do with the way they manage the soil and in terms of cover crops and tillage. To answer your question is regenerative means in a manner that’s improving.Some people think that technology can solve all of our problems. What they don't believe is that Mother Nature is smarter than we are. Click To Tweet
If you’re doing regenerative farming, it means that you’re improving the soil. It gets very complicated and the debate within the industry gets very acrimonious because there are some people that say it has to be regenerative organic, otherwise, it’s not regenerative. That you can’t be using glyphosate, the toxic weed killer on your land and call it regenerative. A lot of these efforts that are regenerative are not organic. They’re regenerative and they may be using glyphosate on their product. This is a source of a very contentious debate within the community. The people who say on the side of, “You can say regenerative, even if they are using chemicals.”
A lot of people feel like, “We need to meet farmers where they’re at and if they’re reducing the amount of chemicals they’re using, because they’re incorporating regenerative practices, then we’re okay with that. We don’t have a lot of time and we need to get people to improve the farming that they’re doing and get them to use fewer chemicals.” That gets one of the big debates within the regenerative community. If you ask people in regenerative, you’ll get answers on both sides of the spectrum.
I love your passion and knowledge for all of this. The good news is you have the phenomenal resource, Organic Insider. I also saw you joined TikTok, Max. You haven’t posted anything but hopefully, we’ll see some content from you. At the very least, the audience could follow you on TikTok if they’re on there and stay tuned for some juicy, organic fun content. I can’t wait to see what you do there. As we start to wrap up, my question for you is what do you feel is something that is an easier step that people can take? If you had one piece of advice for two different types of people.
One is somebody who’s a complete newbie. Maybe they found this show because they’re trying to be more informed about organic and they want to start somewhere. I would love to know what you would advise for that type of person. I’d also love to know what would you advise for someone like me, Jason and other audiences who are similar to us in terms of you know the basics. Maybe you have an intermediate knowledge and awareness of organic, but you’re not quite as advanced as you are Max. What would you advise them? These two different types of avatars: the beginner and the mid-range person in terms of their knowledge.
For someone starting off, I would say start eating an organic breakfast and that doesn’t have to be expensive, nor overwhelming. I know a lot of people are working from home, but if you can eat an organic breakfast, you’re eating a third of your diet that’s organic right away and that could be oatmeal, or bananas, or cereal, or fruit. If you want to get into organic, that is the best way to do it and commit to saying, “I’m going to start eating an organic breakfast.” In lunch and dinner, if that’s too overwhelming, start with breakfast. When you go to the supermarket, start asking questions and start looking at the ingredients. That’s what I would say to people is if you can start with an organic breakfast, it is very manageable and that can be very affordable.
What are some of your favorite organic breakfast to have yourself?
I’m doing more of the intermittent and fasting. I’m generally not eating until maybe noon or 1:00 PM. When I do, maybe I’m making a smoothie or I’m drinking a green juice. In the morning, that’s generally what it is.
Do you drink coffee? Is that part of your fasting? I’m in the same boat. I start my day off with a cup of organic coffee and plant-based milk. That will tide me over until 12:00 PM or 1:00 PM.
I’ve had a lot of addictions in my past, but coffee hasn’t been one of them, probably on purpose.
Did you just have water? Is that your version of it?
The cool thing about coffee for intermittent fasting is that it’s an appetite suppressant and then you feel like you get to have some things. I look forward to having that. That’s impressive that you don’t have anything until lunch.
I wake up and I take these amino acids, but I wouldn’t consider that a meal per se. I’m up and running. I wake up, I meditate, and I do something called, “Creating my Day” where I visualize what I want to happen. I’ll either do yoga in the morning or start working. There’s a lot going on and lunch comes before I know it.
What are some of your favorite breakfast items since you love products? You’re aware of a lot of different options for people. You mentioned an organic oatmeal cup. What else do you love that people might be excited to try out?
There’s a Sauerkraut brand in Massachusetts called Hosta Hill. Kimchi is one of my favorite foods. I was in Western Massachusetts visiting my chiropractor out there. I went to a local health food store. They told me to go check it out. I discovered that brand out there. Urban Remedy has expanded to Boston. They were in New York City. I love what they’re doing with their products. I love Suja’s new drinks. They’ve done an awesome job with the Elevated Nutrients line. REBBL has a new sparkling turmeric drink.
They have a new keto smoothie drink that I want to try. That could be breakfast.
l make a smoothie with blueberries, chia seeds, flax seeds and medicinal mushrooms. Om Mushrooms is a product I like.
Four Sigmatic is great. They have coffee and various powders.
I’ll put in protein powder or I’ll put in other types of berries and nut butter. Here’s a trick. If you want to make a smoothie and you don’t have time to make your own nut milk is to use cold water and add nut butter.
That is such a great hack that I feel like a lot of people don’t know. You can have instant almond milk by using almond butter. I love this discussion because you’re bringing up things for beginners and people that might be a little mid-range in their knowledge. Thank you for all of this. There are many great brands and ideas.
Jesse Schwartz at Living Tree Community Foods told me about that one. Do you know the brand?
I used to get Living Tree raw nut butters. When I was first going raw foodist many years ago, they were one of the first nut and seed butter companies I discovered with an incredible company.
I don’t think they get the recognition that they deserve that’s commensurate with the quality of their products. They’re not a sponsor of mine. I don’t make $.01 from them, but it’s a good brand. The person who runs the company came to visit me in the organization and this was many years ago. I got exposure to him because I used to make my own Brazil nut milk all the time. I used to do a lot of Brazil nut milk and then black sesame seed milk.
Speaking of that, I’m a big fan of Three Trees and they make that wonderful black sesame milk. They’re doing a lot of creative things with plant-based milk.
They’ve got the black sesame and then they also have the pistachio milk.
Living Tree has an online store. A lot of these brands you can buy directly through their website. Some of them you can find on Amazon if you want to shop there. Although, we’re trying to refer directly to the business so gets as much of the commission as possible, and we can support, and be in full alignment too because Amazon’s not always the most ethical shopping choice. I’m a fan of Thrive Market. I love iHerb. There are many wonderful places. I’m encouraging the audience to do some research. If you Google your favorite brand and a lot of them have store locators. You can go find them at a local store. If you can support a natural market or a coop, and those are sprinkled around the country and the world. You might be introduced to something down the street that you didn’t even know of. The cool thing is a lot of non-natural markets are carrying these products too. It’s about growing your awareness as we talk about a lot.If you want to get into organic, the best way to do it is to start eating an organic breakfast. Click To Tweet
Speaking of which, Max, we are so blessed to know you. All these years, it’s cool to know that I’ve known you almost your entire career, because like I said, I got to see you following me on Twitter back in 2010 and you were getting started and so was I. You’re such a wealth of information. If you want to connect with Jason and me, that’s @Wellevatr on all the major social media platforms. Stay tuned and be sure to subscribe to the show and our newsletter. We will keep you posted when we have Max on the show again, which we don’t know exactly when that’s going to be yet. Maybe when your book is gearing up to come out which I’m so excited to read. We wish we were going to see you at Expo East, but we’ll have to figure out when the next time we can get to see you in person.
For those of us in the industry, we see everyone at these trade shows and oftentimes that’s it. That’s the only time we see each other. I always love seeing you at the shows and to not have that is a real loss. Not only for the industry but to see people. You take it for granted because there’s a lot of travel that’s involved. Going to shows is not digging ditches, but they’re long days. It’s unfortunate what’s going on in a variety of levels, but not having these shows and not seeing people. Hopefully, they’ll come back soon. Thank you so much for having me. I love what you are doing with this show. I love the voice that you’re putting out there and talking about some great issues. It’s been an honor to be on your show.
It’s such a pleasure, Max. Thank you.
I can’t say it enough how much we appreciate you. We can’t wait for the next time!
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- Max Goldberg
- Natural Products Expo
- Pressed Juice Directory
- Juice Press
- Expo East
- Organic Insider
- Healthy, Organic Vegan on A Budget
- Has Pandemic Snacking Lured Us Back to Big Food and Bad Habits? – New York Times Article
- Impossible Foods
- Beyond Meat
- Dr. Bronner’s
- Rodale Institute
- Food Chains Documentary Trailer
- One Degree Organic Foods
- Kiss the Ground
- Hosta Hill
- Urban Remedy
- Om Mushrooms
- Four Sigmatic
- Living Tree Community Foods
- Three Trees
- Thrive Market
- @Wellevatr – Instagram
- Instagram – Living Maxwell
- Facebook – Living Maxwell
- TikTok – Organic Insider
- LinkedIn – Organic Insider Group
About Max Goldberg
Called “an organic sensation” by The New York Times and named as “one of the nation’s leading organic food experts” by Shape magazine, Max Goldberg is the Founder/Editor of Organic Insider, a weekly newsletter read by many of the most influential CEOs in the industry today. He also runs the organic food blog Living Maxwell and the Organic Food Industry group on LinkedIn, which counts more than 23,000 members from around the world.
A journalist who has been covering the organic food sector for the last decade in the U.S., Max is a former Wall Street investment banker who spent much of his time working in Latin America. Fluent in Spanish, Max received his BA from Brown University and his MBA from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business.
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