Transcript of the No-Bullsh!t Vegan podcast, episode 160
Chef Karen McAthy discusses fear of and misinformation about “processed” and novel foods
Karina Inkster: You're listening to the No-Bullshit Vegan Podcast, episode 160. Chef Karen McAthy is on the show to speak with me about fear and misinformation related to so-called processed foods and new plant-based food products that are coming to market.
Hey, welcome to the show. I'm Karina, your go-to no BS vegan fitness and nutrition coach. Today, my guest and I are discussing food and nutrition on a very macro level, and not macro as in macronutrients, but a macro scale, which I think needs to happen more on this show. I'm very excited for that. Now, if you'd like to look at your own nutrition on a more detailed level, you can download our portion guide, which is an alternative to calorie counting. Test out our vegan protein calculator and read about the 15 micronutrients that are extra important for vegans all at karinainkster.com/resources.
Introducing my guest today, Chef Karen McAthy. Karen, a lifelong resident of BC's West Coast, is an innovator in dairy-free vegan, plant-based cultured cheese, and plant-based cuisine, co-founder of former Consumer Packaged Goods brand, Blue Heron, and parent company, Lumi Foods. Karen's focus on innovation in plant-based foods is linked to understanding the complex systems of food from growing to finished goods.
Currently, Karen is developing starter and adjunct cultures for commercial use in the cultured vegan cheese and dairy alternative sector. I had Chef Karen on the show way back in episode 34, which you should definitely check out if you haven't already. That was the most interesting discussion about cheese I've ever had. Karen addressed the myth that something can be called cheese only if it's made with dairy, the idea of cheese as a process, not only an end product, the differences between types of vegan cheeses, and a whole lot more. Again, that's episode 34 of this show. You can find it in your podcast listening app of choice or at nobullshitvegan.com/034.
Today, Chef Karen and I have a wide-ranging conversation about misinformation that's creating pushback against certain vegan foods, how veganism often gets conflated with health, and much more. Hope you enjoy.
Hi, Karen. Welcome back to the show. Nice to speak with you again.
Karen McAthy: Yeah. Great to be back and nice to see you again.
Karina Inkster: I think it was episode 34, if I'm not mistaken, and now we're in the 150s, possibly the 160s. It's been a while since Karen's been on the show, so I'm glad you're back.
Karen McAthy: Well, congratulations for surpassing the 100-episode mark, too.
Karina Inkster: Oh, thanks. Yeah, I never guessed. I started it in 2018 and I was like, "Well, there's maybe eight or 10 folks that would be cool to speak with and then that's it." And now look where we are. You never know.
Karen McAthy: That's okay. Well, congratulations because that's a big goal to achieve in the podcasting realm.
Karina Inkster: Well, thank you. We have very wide-ranging and connected topics to talk about today. I was thinking of a starting off point, because we've had a couple of discussions before meeting today about what we want to talk about and how we want to approach it and that kind of thing. One thing that we were discussing before is this concept of black-and-white thinking and how rampant it is in not just the fitness and the nutrition industries, but in veganism. Often in veganism, it's around things like ethical versus non-ethical or healthy versus non-healthy or unhealthy. This whole approach really prevents nuanced discussions, which is what we're going to try to do today.
Around this idea of black-and-white thinking, Karen, something that you've mentioned is there seems to be this growing pushback against some plant-based product innovations that are coming out around things being, quote, "too processed" or, quote, "too unhealthy," and it's just general fear-mongering around certain ingredients. We can talk about some of those ingredients today in our conversation.
Whenever I hear, "If you can't pronounce it, it shouldn't be in your food," or the poor use of the word chemicals to mean toxins... I think that the wellness industry is capitalizing on half or partial truths to spread misinformation that ultimately rewards the proponents of such notions with clout or economic gain. Those are some excellent points that you made and all points I want to go into today.
Karen McAthy: Yeah. Those sound like some fighting words coming from me.
Karina Inkster: Yeah. They are fighting words, yes! But I feel like you touched on economic gain. You touched on just general clout being received from speaking this way about foods and the fear-mongering and all of that. Maybe we can start on the idea of fear itself or maybe it's uncertainty. I'm not entirely sure what the right word is for this, but it's what some folks are feeling around plant-based food innovations or new products that are coming to market that are plant-based. Why is fear involved in the first place?
Karen McAthy: That's such a great question. As someone who's an innovator in the food space and has delivered to market novel product and has had to face face-to-face with consumers' skepticism, anger, fear, nervousness, anxiousness, one: food is so highly personal that it's very easily going to be a centre point for other larger-scale fears, anxiety, nerves, uncertainty. But at the same time, our general knowledge around how food is produced, whether it's from growing to finished goods, is actually pretty limited. There's pockets of people who know things, but overall, I think almost everybody has a fairly low level understanding of all the many things that go into how we get food onto our plate when it's not grown directly or produced directly by our own hands. I'm trying to say this with quite a lot of grace for the fear part or the anxiety part of things.
When we are not familiar with something, I think that's pretty classically true of humans in general. Our first response tends to be from a place of anxiety or uncertainty versus a little bit more openness. Maybe some of that's hardwired from an evolutionary perspective with regard to just protection, but culturally it converts into more problematic things where we use our own particular lens and our own layer of knowledge to then project it outward as though that's somehow an overarching truth or the maximization of the knowledge.
Let's say if I only ever know x, y, and zed about something and I assume that's what only exists in terms of the knowledge, and then I'd speak on that particular food or that topic from that place, then that's already making an assumption that there maybe isn't more to learn about that or more to understand about that. With respect to food, I think people tend to speak from that place of their personal experience first before all other perspectives enter the chat, so to speak.
Karina Inkster: Yeah, that's an interesting point. I feel like this could be applied to any number of topics, not just food, that we are not necessarily experts in, which is probably why there's so much misinformation in general out there, but that's a whole other discussion.
Karen McAthy: I just think food just tends to be that particularly hyper-personal place that opens that door really readily. When a new food item comes to market... We're in a particularly weird time right now, I think, politically and culturally and particularly in North America, where this idea of challenging established knowledge or challenging so-called elites or so-called experts seems to be a prominent process right now. That it's really left this idea that somehow opinion equals knowledge as a viewpoint to understanding things.
With respect specifically to novel foods, if something is being produced in a way that's not familiar to the majority of people, they tend to adopt sort of a fear-based approach to understanding it. The idea of looking at something like a cheese not made from animal milk becomes a really big hot-button topic. The irony or the funny part is that, with a rare exception, most people that respond to it angrily actually don't really have much of an idea how dairy cheese is produced itself anyway. They just know that there's some milk and that maybe a thing happens, but they don't actually have a particularly deep knowledge of all the processes that can transform this one substance into many different kinds of cheese substances.
I'm not really sure how internally they make the leap that automatically a plant version of that is unhealthy or dangerously high processed when there isn't even a universally accepted definition for something like ultra-high processed. But from my experience in one-on-one conversations and emails and direct messages and things like that, I think even amongst the friendliest in the community, there is an assumption that the ingredient list on some things they've seen equates to either equally bad or dangerous. And then therefore, maybe all dairy-free cheeses are produced in exactly the same way.
When they enter it from just this limited knowledge, but try to apply it broadly without actually asking questions, "Well, how is that actually made," or "What does that actually mean," they've cut out all of this other stuff and it's just fear, anxiety talking. I mean, that's my perception. Some people will really dig in their heels around that idea of being able to pronounce all the ingredients on all this and equate that to somehow safety, but I think that's where the fear comes from, is in misunderstanding. I'm not really sure how we got to a place where it's become such a ubiquitous force in the food conversation, but it's become pretty prominent. It's almost the most dominant feature of most conversations around food.
Karina Inkster: Absolutely. Yeah, you're making a lot of really good points and I feel like the actual BS-busting around individual ingredients is probably one piece of the puzzle. We've, on the podcast, chatted with folks like Dr. Matt Nagra who really, really BS-busted the whole idea that seed oils are bad for us somehow. There's individual ingredients that we can look at, but I think zooming out and looking at overall why this is happening and where this anxiety and fear comes from... A lot of the times it is because folks are unfamiliar with something and unfamiliarity, for whatever reason, is correlated with being bad for us or anxiety, fear.
Just as an example, one time I put up a post on Facebook, just a list of ingredients, and I was like, "Hey, would you guys eat this?" It was probably in a vegan, I don't know, food group or something. Anyways, I posted this whole list of ingredients. It was like capric acid, E300, E306, tocopherol, ethyl hexanoate, ethyl butanoate, et cetera. I'm like, "Hey, would you eat this?" And people are like, "No, because it has weirdly named chemicals in it." And I'm like, "You do realize it's a banana, right? I'm just listing the chemical ingredients of a banana."
That kind of thing, I think, is part of the picture, too, this whole concept that we're still being told by so-called nutrition and fitness influencers, if you can't pronounce the ingredient, you probably shouldn't eat it, and that's part of the problem.
Karen McAthy: Yeah, exactly. I have less issue or beef with consumer individuals having anxiety, fear, but I have issue with people who position themselves as being figures of authority and transmitting knowledge when they are lazy in their communication of that information. Now that this idea of expertise has now moved down into the Instagram or the TikTok level, quote-unquote, "has democratized expertise" I suppose in a certain sense, I think there's an obligation then if you're transmitting something that's meant to be beyond just sort of like, "I like this or I don't like that." I think there's an obligation to be better informed in what you're sharing and not going into grocery stores and pointing at ingredient lists and saying, "This is bad."
Karina Inkster: Exactly.
Karen McAthy: Because chemicals equaling toxins is probably one of my biggest pet peeves out there. It incredibly frustrates me when I hear nutritionists and naturopaths and others equate chemicals to toxins, because that couldn't be more inaccurate. We are made of chemicals. We could do a chemical breakdown of what is in blood. We could do a chemical breakdown of skin. We are chemicals. We are atoms. When I see people, and even when I see fellow food producers rely on that tool as a marketing tool to suggest better than, I think it's lazy and appeals to low-hanging fruit perhaps. But I don't think it actually ultimately does a service towards either allowing for better products to be developed and brought to market or for better consumer knowledge of understanding the food system or food processes. When we just rely on that as a trope for communicating expertise, I think it's dangerous a little bit, to be frank.
Karina Inkster: I would fully agree. I mean, we could do a whole podcast episode just on busting that myth.
Karen McAthy: Just on that.
Karina Inkster: But, I mean, you've already touched on all the points. We're all chemicals. Everything we eat is chemicals. Chemicals does not equal toxins. I think that is the main point.
Karen McAthy: Not even remotely, and stuff when we say the word na-... So this is safe, because therefore it's natural. Equally dangerous.
Karina Inkster: Arsenic is natural.
Karen McAthy: Dangerous chemicals that we encounter that we shouldn't just ingest because it's natural or they only become safe for consumption because we have to apply a process such as heat to transform them and those sort of things. Using these catchwords of natural and chemical equals toxin and natural equals good, I think it's unfortunate in that we're relying on people not being willing to want to know more or better knowledge in order to make that move. I don't think that does anybody a service, even including the person who's sending that information out there. I don't think it actually does them a service either.
One of my favourite health, quote-unquote, "influencers" is Dr. Idz who routinely calls out bad information in, really, methodical ways, where he pulls a list of data and lists of research articles and then tries to explain the difference between a meta-analysis and individual studies. Because when people start jumping into the pseudo-sharing of data, they don't do the hard work of then explaining where that data came from, what were the parameters of that data, because it matters. It matters if the original researchers are only looking at this tiny lens versus extrapolating it further. It matters if it was just an initial study versus the ongoing work of science, which is then to do multiple comparative studies and have more than one party replicate the outcome. I enjoy watching him methodically take on a lot of these people who walk into grocery stores and point at labels and say, "Bad."
Karina Inkster: I'm going to have to look up this person because he's not on my radar yet. This sounds like a perfect addition to the no-bullshit professionals.
Karen McAthy: Yeah. He takes it on head on, which I appreciate. I mean, I could ramble on as I think I am, but this moves in this arena of things. It moves into things like when we are saying living water versus tap water. When we're talking about things that are as essential to what we need, like water, oxygen, and food, and housing, of course... But bodily, those three things we need. When we're talking about these things as though living water is somehow better for us than tap water, but nobody's talking about what living water actually means and nobody's applying the microscope and going, "Oh, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Maybe we should understand what constitutes living water."
Karina Inkster: Or toxins, for that matter. You ask anyone who's peddling some kind of cleanse what the toxins actually are and they have no clue.
Karen McAthy: Exactly. Yeah. The things that we think that can have a toxic load in the body are... You rarely hear the people who cell cleanses talking about the role of the kidney and the liver and how they actually do function. People who pedal alkaline water never talk about the fact that the body itself doesn't have a singular pH state.
Karina Inkster: Exactly.
Karen McAthy: Our blood pH state is very different than what our lungs and our heart or our brain require. There isn't some magical state of one uniform pH that is perfect for maintaining human health, but you never hear the people who are selling these technologies talk about that. They benefit when they avoid good information, they benefit when they continue to perpetuate the lowest level of pseudo-scientific sounding information, and then the alt-wellness naturopath nutrition realm is as big an industry as, quote-unquote, "big pharma" is.
Karina Inkster: Absolutely.
Karen McAthy: This mythology that somehow it’s an alternative to that is questionable, I think.
Karina Inkster: To say the least.
Karen McAthy: At least. I actually am a big proponent of having multiple modalities to sustaining one's health and wellness, but even when they say, "If you're entering into a financial deal. If it sounds too good to be true, it's too good to be true,” well, the same thing absolutely applies if a product is trying to suggest that it can cure, solve a lot of things. Quite likely, it can't.
Karina Inkster: Right, exactly. Red flag number one right there.
Karen McAthy: Yes, exactly.
Karina Inkster: Yeah. I feel like we need to touch on one slight diversion, because we're talking a lot about health. I think in the vegan world, veganism is often conflated with health. Sure, there are some folks who are thinking about health and some folks who go vegan for health reasons, but I think we just need to put on the table that veganism at its core is not about health. It's an ethical system. Then within that system, what we're doing is adhering to a plant-based diet, whether or not we have health as part of the deal. I feel like as soon as you tell someone who isn't vegan that you're vegan, the first thing they'll start spouting at you is like, "Oh, well, processed meats aren't healthy," and "Oh, don't you need to take supplements?" It becomes a health thing and I'm like, "Dude, I didn't even mention health. I didn't tell you why I am vegan," which for me, by the way, even as a fitness person is not related to health. I did not go vegan for health reasons. I just thought we maybe should put that on the table as a background.
Karen McAthy: No, 100%. Because as someone who's brought a product to market in the consumer packaged goods realm, vegan food products have a higher virtue standard to which they're expected to uphold on the market than almost anything else. They're expected to be delicious. They're expected to perform well in all culinary applications regardless of someone's knowledgeability or intent of use. They're expected to be nutritionally at the top of the game and they're expected to be all the things all at one time. And it's because... I think once you're outside the vegan community, there has absolutely been a conflation of this idea of the plant-based diet and health.
Some of that comes from the use of studies that have shown that a whole foods plant-based diet is generally healthier than other forms of diets. Then when plant-curious folks or omnivores who are trying to reduce their animal product intake become the larger consumer set, their expectation of the health component that drives that conflation, but without a nuanced understanding of the word vegan not actually meaning anything related to food inherently. In fact, it's an ethical system.
I've had this conversation a lot at multiple levels of my journey and explaining that to a meat eater saying, "When you go and eat a beef burger, you're not eating that because that's health food. You're eating that because you want something delicious and juicy." Well, the same reason that somebody who wants to eat a vegan burger wants it to be messy and delicious and all of those things, they're not eating it because they're trying to get their fibre and protein alignment right for the day.
Karina Inkster: Exactly.
Karen McAthy: They're eating it because they enjoy it. There can be ethical vegans who subsist off lots of less nutritious food, let's say, like food that probably should only be occasional versus the dominant part of your diet, like lots of chips and lots of delicious vegan chocolate and things like that. I think trying to ensure a thriving product market variety for people who choose to eat in the plant-based lifestyle, I think it's problematic when that conflation of health and plant-based or health and vegan is made, because then it limits the market opportunity for people bringing products to market and actually limits or constraints the ability to bring a product that's been created through processes that may be newer, because now you have to overcome this barrier around education and have to deal with this wall of the health, not health question right away or in advance of. And it also assumes there's only one way to be healthy in all of that, I think, when that becomes what happens.
Karina Inkster: Well, it makes a lot of assumptions.
Karen McAthy: Yeah. But a hundred percent, that's what’s happened out there is that plant-based eating and vegan specifically equates healthier. I certainly encountered that in one of the last restaurants I helmed before jumping off on my own, where the general manager... He himself was not ethically vegan but had adopted a plant-based diet. Whenever he would talk to customers about it or why he did it, it was never about he did it for the environment or he did it because of the animals. It was always because, "Well, I lost 60 pounds."
Karina Inkster: Right.
Karen McAthy: I'm like, "Well, all that just tells me is that how you were eating before was wildly different than the calories you're taking in now, and that maybe your activity level changed."
Karina Inkster: Well, there's a lot of assumptions. Also, I think this whole discussion leaves out the fact that a lot of folks go vegan entirely for ethical reasons and not for health reasons, or maybe entirely for environmental reasons and not health reasons. I mean, we don't know, but it leaves out a lot of the discussion, which seems to be a theme in our chat around missing pieces of information.
Karen McAthy: Well, it really is in the consumer product market, because in the round tables I've been part of and in reading the consumer reports and who tends to purchase the products is that the ethical vegans, and I count myself as one of them, i.e., the people that chose our pathways because we care about how other sentient creatures are treated in the food system and otherwise, we're not the biggest consumer portion.
Karina Inkster: Right. That's a good point.
Karen McAthy: Our reasons for doing so don't become the top reasons a retailer cares to bring the product to market. If a retailer is adopting a new product, they're going to adopt the products that will reach the broadest group of people that are seeking those products. Currently, right now, it's ostensibly under the notion of health that seems to be driving that purchase decision and sometimes environment, but it mostly seems to be the health-seeking crowd that's driving some of that.
Karina Inkster: That's a good point.
Karen McAthy: Yeah. At the same time, there's no lack of vegan snacks out there, but the expectation is that they also need to be "healthy." I am doing air quotes for that.
Karina Inkster: Yes. Yes. “Healthy” in air quotes. Yeah. Well, I was speaking with the co-founder and CEO of Next Level Burger and he said the vast majority of his customers are not vegan or anywhere on the vegan spectrum. The business piece and who your target audience is, who your market is, who your customers are... I mean, that's always going to be a big piece of the puzzle, so I think that's actually important to keep in mind for this discussion.
Karen McAthy: It is because when you're in the producer end of it, even if you've come in from the ethical place, the decisions that you have to make to get that product to market and keep it there... The ethical part becomes the background part. The objective, at least for me, was always to try to keep that at least on the conversational table, right?
Karina Inkster: Right.
Karen McAthy: But contemporarily, there's been... 2020, there was that big bubble around plant-based and all the excitement and the market for plant-based foods, but there's been a really big pushback. We're in that trough right now that often follows a peak and sort of just starting to come out it. But part of what's happened in that softening is that a lot of meat companies that did have plant-based lines canceled their lines. People have started promulgating studies or partial studies that are putting the consumption of meat back in. Consumption rates of things like chicken have actually gone up, not down, and demand for animal meat hasn't really softened as much as I think us on the ethical side of the table would like to see.
When that happens, and then the open part of the consumer base that does want to still keep plant-based open, what we're all being told again now is that putting vegan on your package could be a detriment and not a selling feature.
Karina Inkster: It's not a marketing buzzword anymore.
Karen McAthy: And that it's actually been shown to inhibit people's purchasing decisions right now. This is at the same time as finally... In Canada, there's finally some formalization happening around what the V symbol means. When you put that symbol on the package, it will soon have to meet a standard in order for you to be able to put that on your package. So it's a bit of an irony that, at the same time, that it is being defined is that there's also this V-word coming across as an innovation on a purchase.
For people in the product market side, hard decisions have to be made around how do you keep that product there and keep that space open, that shelf space availability open for plant-based products. The Plant-Based Foods Association here in Canada, I think, is doing a lot of work in that realm, but for the individual producers, this produces a significant challenge.
Karina Inkster: That's an interesting point. I feel like... I mean, we could use an example of a specific product perhaps to illustrate some of these things. One specific type or group of products is plant-based milks, which have received a ton of pushback actually from the dairy industry itself, and possibly some of what you've mentioned around companies that weren't inherently vegan companies that had a plant-based option, then pulling it back due to lack of demand or whatever it was. But I think the plant-based milk as a specific product is maybe an example of some of these things that are occurring in the industry. It also includes ingredients that are being vilified unreasonably, like seed oils, right?
Karen McAthy: Yes, exactly. Ironically, though... Or that's probably the wrong use of the word, but plant-based milk has actually been probably one of the most successful categories of plant-based products in that it has meaningfully declared shelf space and it's actually caused shrinking of dairy space. Actually, some previous animal dairies have converted to plant-based production, and there's a new one in the Netherlands that's doing so.
But certainly, on the topic around the seed oil question and specifically the canola as a humectant in oat milks... The amount of misplaced outrage, and I'm okay with saying that, it's misplaced outrage around the understanding of the role the canola oil or rapeseed oil is doing there. It's required to keep the substrate stable so it doesn't just have all the solids land. Probably the most frustrating is it's not just proponents from dairy that question this usage, but there's also plenty of vegans that challenge it by saying, "You can make your own plant-based milk at home. It's super easy and you don't need to add all these things."
I'm like, "Yeah, you absolutely can make that version of plant milk at home, but will it perform equally or the same in certain applications? Probably not." Because one, the at-home equipment doesn't produce the fine shear that you need to break down the plant material. A lot of the use of something like a beta-amylase, which is simply just an enzyme that helps break down the protein structure, allows for that mixture now to become more consistent throughout and therefore stable. Plant milks are getting challenged on those kinds of things for not great or well-understood reasons other than, again, as, "I don't understand this ingredient, so I'm going to say bad."
Canola's got a bad wrap, but there are sectors in the vegan product market that are coming up more where that challenge is going to get even bigger before it even hits the market and that... In plant meat, there has been brewing for a number of years and the work is very serious and ongoing, but the idea of cultured meat or the use of processes called things like precision fermentation, which is using yeast or filament as fungi to produce animal-free proteins that are then used to create products in the animal meat or animal protein replacement market. Those products in Europe already, they're facing bans without any real effort to understand the processes or the technology or the product quality after that or the product safety after that.
There's just this sort of protectionist fear approach to it that's just saying, "No." I'm a little surprised in that I haven't seen strong responses coming back saying, "But this is actually how cattle farmers breed their cows." I'm not talking about just the animal cruelty part of it. I'm talking about, "But what are they doing when they're selecting for certain breeds of animals to produce certain amount of muscle?" There's research projects that are actively being done to cultivate animals that will produce less methane and that will be able to digest different ranges of material and where feedstock is being developed that will help aid in reducing methane.
I think the lobbies on that front have been mildly successful in that they've managed to re-romanticize the home-on-the-land kind of approach and would be, "Look, it's just a farmer in a field with the cows. This is natural," instead of talking about all of the other much more intense technological side that goes into the replication of herds. Or even on plant side, when people... I confess readily that I tend to be more whole foods, plant-based than some other things, and that's probably more because I just cook a lot for myself at home anyway. But when people are saying, well, "Ultra-high processed foods, but, look, it's a blueberry. It's natural. It's fine." I'm like, "Yeah, but do you know that a cultivated blueberry actually tastes nothing like its wild type. Nothing. Doesn't taste anything like it."
A wild blueberry is incredibly tart compared to the sweetness of cultivated blueberries and that to grow blueberries or that to grow most of the food... At least I speak to British Columbia, but most of the produce that's grown in British Columbia requires every season during the flowering season that beekeepers bring their hives in to ensure pollination occurs. It's not just wild bees out there that are doing this that ensure that a whole blueberry crop can be produced or such. There's all of these layers of how that whole blueberry that's natural that's not processed has actually... There's been a ton of things that happen before that even gets to you.
The research on the type of the species that'll grow well, the research on the... In order to get a highly productive crop, you have to grow... I think it's between two to four different varieties of blueberry, because just growing one variety won't give you a good yield. When we oversimplify or when we erase at least some of the complexity, we actually are dumbing ourselves down, to be frank.
Karina Inkster: Well, again, that seems to be the trend in all of these things, where it's really just one very small piece of the puzzle and you're missing out on a lot of pertinent information. What's the background? How was it produced? What's the technology involved compared to what? You have to ask all these questions and nobody seems to be doing that, which is not doing our movement any good.
Karen McAthy: It isn't doing the movement any good and it's not going to actually open a market to have if the idea is that better product-market fit can actually get more people to eat more plants. There's no one type of vegan, because everybody that comes in has come in for a multitude of reasons, but it's not actually furthering that objective along when we don't actually have an understanding around how the food system functions. Even when we're talking about things for climate and increasing the use of pulses in that, is that farmers in order with changing climate are having to develop new pulse types of plants that can withstand longer periods of drought.
When people are like... It came from, again, this idea of this pseudo simplicity of like, "It came from a plant, therefore it's good." It's really just erasing what it takes to ensure that plants can sustain climate changes that are happening and what's required to make that happen. It's not really the simple thing. And I think if anybody has grown something at home, it wouldn't be that hard for them if they stop and pause. "Well, wait, I planted 15 tomato plants and only two were productive," or things like that might start to give you some insight into like, "Oh, maybe it isn't just as easy as that.”
Karina Inkster: Well, it usually isn't. There's usually a lot of info that we're missing out on, and maybe in some sense it's also bad science that's informing decisions. That's probably also part of the piece is like, "Well, what's the actual quality of the information that is supposedly being used in all of these arguments?" It's not just that we don't have the information; it's where the information coming from.
Karen McAthy: A hundred percent. I think quality of information and actually knowing how to recognize quality of information is quite important. Reading a research study... It isn't actually super easy inherently. If you don't understand how a study was set up and what the tools of the study were, then it can actually be a challenge to compare two different studies that seem to offer competing information. I think there's actually a role for people capable of reading that work and disseminating it in an accessible way. By the time we see something in a headline or in a newspaper or that's communicated at the lay level, almost all the important nuance has been pulled away from it.
Karina Inkster: Absolutely.
Karen McAthy: Usually, the one that most of the credible scientists will leave in there, "This only applies to this range of things," or "This requires further investigation." Those two statements often get hidden away or pulled away from a catchy study title.
Karina Inkster: Oh, yeah. Those are never going to make it into the headline. Absolutely not. Karen, didn't you once have an experience... You don't have to go into detail, but didn't you once encounter this type of simplistic thinking where someone passed on an opportunity because the product ingredients contained seed oils and they're like, "Nope, hard pass," just because of that?
Karen McAthy: Well, our products don't actually contain seed oils, but it was because they were plant plant-based and they equated... somehow this man with quite a lot of power and a lot of money equated seed oils with fermentation of plant protein. I don't know what magical leap he did in his head to do that, but that is what happened because I was describing our process of fermentation because he asked me. So I was trying to explain it at a very base level what fermentation does in our case. Then he somehow just made a leap to somehow extracting oils and protein from the nuts would be bad, because there's some worry about it being bad in seed oils. But it effectively stopped the conversation, because in his head he had decided that was a hard stop.
Karina Inkster: Oh, yeah. Bizarre. But this is the simplistic thinking at work. We're not just talking about consumers making their own decisions, which is a huge part of the deal, but we're also talking about high-powered folks making business decisions. We're talking about brands and how they further them. We're talking about whether or not new products make it to market. I mean, it's not just individual folks we're talking about here.
Karen McAthy: A hundred percent. It's systemic, like all things. There's multiple layers to how all of this turns into something. Trying to figure out how to undo some of that and not have people become instantly afraid or uncomfortable of the idea of new processes being applied to generate food types, it starts with trying to figure out how to make sure good information gets disseminated and shared as widely as bad information does.
Karina Inkster: Right. Hey, that's a pretty good litmus test actually. We know we're succeeding when the evidence-based information is making it as far as the pseudoscience.
Karen McAthy: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. That is a good litmus test.
Karina Inkster: Karen, you have some consulting opportunities. I don't know a ton about what you're offering. Can you share a little bit about these?
Karen McAthy: Sure. I am in a bit of a transition, but I am offering consulting and working with some small-scale to medium-sized food producers around a range of things. Product development and research and development are key offerings, as well as helping people navigate programs like the Scientific Research and Economic Development filings or SRED as it were. That helps them reclaim finances from the federal government for work they're doing.
And also anything around scale to market, helping people navigate those kinds of challenges, a broad range of the business development realm, specifically for food companies.
Karina Inkster: Oh, very cool. That's awesome. We are going to have show notes as usual, so folks can connect with you if they're in that realm or otherwise want to connect with Karen. Is there anything you want to leave our listeners with?
We talked at a pretty high level about a lot of these concepts, which I think is important. Why do we think these things? Where does information come from? Why is there fear involved? But any sort of action steps that we, including me as an individual, can take? Any last thoughts?
Karen McAthy: Maybe it's the nerd in me, but I don't think it would hurt people to find online courses on basic science reading or basic science education to be frank. That may be unconventional advice and certainly not as quippy as other kinds of things, I could say, but I do think making oneself ready to actually understand more deeply means going and finding the means to do so. There are lectures at universities or at food groups or in different places that talk about these topics. Go and join one of them. Don't just take the Facebook or social media thread you're in as the primary source of information. Get offline, go and read some articles, go and find some good science educators that can help demystify some things.
Karina Inkster: I think that's fantastic advice. Just as a little aside on that topic, I never learned how to properly assess the quality of research, how to properly do lit reviews until I was in graduate school. I didn't even learn that in my undergrad degree properly.
Karen McAthy: Oh, wow.
Karina Inkster: It probably depends what area you're in. You're doing research papers and you're writing essays and, of course, you're doing that in undergrad, but full-on lit reviews, the statistics involved, how to tell what size of an effect they found, I didn't do all that stuff until grad school. I think it should be taught way earlier, maybe not quite that level of intensity. But we don't really have anything that's like that in our public school system at this point, and so I think what you're saying is you got to take it upon yourself at this point.
Karen McAthy: I do think there should be something like that much, much earlier to help people navigate that information stream. A hundred percent, I agree with that.
Karina Inkster: Fantastic. Well, as always, Karen, it was great speaking with you. Thanks so much for coming back on the show.
Karen McAthy: It was a pleasure as always. I always enjoy chatting with you and seeing your posts, which have always inspired me.
Karina Inkster: Oh, thank you. Karen, thank you again for joining me. Much appreciated. I always love our conversations. Head to our show notes at nobullshitvegan.com/160 to connect with Karen, and don't forget to get your hands on our free nutrition resources at karinainkster.com/resources. Thanks for tuning in.