Koen van Seijen: I’m interviewing Greg Shewmaker, co-founder of TeakOrigin, a biochemistry data company located in Boston. They enable people throughout the global food system to accurately answer critical questions like how is food changing throughout the supply chain and are we getting what we’re paying for, as most people know? I’m fascinating about the link between healthy soils, healthy produce, healthy gut, healthy people, and especially if that leads to healthy ecosystems. So I think we have a lot to discuss. Welcome, Greg.
Greg Shewmaker: Today, there is only one way to truly determine, you know, information about that apple, and that is to test it in a lab. You have to send it off and it has to be analyzed chemically. And once it’s analyzed chemically, then you can say, OK, well, here’s what’s actually happening inside that apple. But without doing that, there are no magic devices or magic algorithms that could tell you that information without accessing that chemical analysis.
Greg Shewmaker: So we’ll take that apple and then we’ll create what we call a critical composition profile. So here’s what is important from a supply chain and here’s what’s important from a consumer standpoint. And here are the individual components that make up these different things. And then we’ll essentially deconstruct that apple in our lab.
Greg Shewmaker: We take all that information and we essentially create a digital data model. So we digitize that information. We say, OK, we create two models. The first models, a classifier model.
That’s the easy one. So we say, OK, now, based on all these different factors, we build a model that says, I’m going to take a handheld spectrometer off the shelf. Lots of companies make these things. And when I scan the piece of food using that classifier model, I’ll be able to determine without telling that device anything that, hey, this is an apple. If I’ve successfully done that, then it goes to the next model, which is a predictive model that says, OK, now that I know it’s an apple, I’m going to look at all the different things that we’re measuring. I’m going to look at the moisture content and vitamin C and sugars and so on. And I’m going to make a prediction of the levels of those analyses inside of that particular apple. And I’m going to return to you individual scores of each one of those analyzed and I’m going to give you a combined score that says here is the overall quality of that particular apple. So not apples in general, not the concept of an apple, but that actual apple in your hand.
Greg Shewmaker: So if I’m a retailer. I’ll receive a shipment of apples or peaches or whatever. And I go through a very rudimentary, archaic way of determining, you know, is this what I ordered? I maybe taste it. I smell it. I’ll do some brics testing. I’ll feel it. I’ll tell me how old it is. I’ll know what region, what farm it’s from, but it’s art, it is not science.
Greg Shewmaker: In reality, I have no idea what I just received and therefore I have no idea what I’m in turn selling you. And so when you actually take this technology that we developed and you scan that apple, you find out that it is oftentimes 25 or 50 x off of what the nutritional label says should be there.
Greg Shewmaker: I think everyone sort of understood that over time an apple degrades, but I don’t think anyone realized that it degrades in a matter of weeks.
Greg Shewmaker: So if you think about apple season in September and October, for the most part, at least in parts of the world that we live in after about six weeks, that apple is doesn’t have any nutrition left in it. It’s essentially sugar and water.
Greg Shewmaker: Essentially that price doesn’t equate quality. So even as I’m going to a higher end retailer or buying in a farmer’s markets or, you know, maybe buying organic versus conventional from a nutritional standpoint. So forget the environmental footprint for a minute. There are really no differences.
Greg Shewmaker: And so really what we’re trying to get to is not, hey, stop eating apples. That’s the last thing we want people to hear. It’s more about I just want people to make a more informed decision about that apple.
Greg Shewmaker: So sticking with the apple example for a minute in 2017, we first started this living in New England. We went around all the different New England orchards and we picked apples right from a tree and we would have them back in our lab within the hour. So our team went out there and picked them, put it in the lab, tested them. And as you’d imagine, the nutrient contents were off the chart. You know, sometimes three, four, five x of what the label said should be in those apples for vitamin C’s and antioxidants and things like that. We went to the same orchards in 2018, exact same orchards, you know, in some cases the same row of trees and pick the apples and took them to the lab within an hour and tested them. And we could find almost no hint of vitamin C in the apples.
Greg Shewmaker: It was shocking for us to learn that you just assumed, hey, if I pick an apple up, a tree doesn’t get any fresher and a more nutritious than that.
Greg Shewmaker: Spinach, for example, that we learned after seven days, all the nutrients are essentially gone from spinach, regardless of how it shipped or stored.
Greg Shewmaker: So essentially the technology that we’ve created does three things. One is it determines quality, let’s say nutritional quality or nutritional contents. The second thing it does is identifies adulteration. And then the third thing is authentication.
Koen van Seijen: Is there this holy connection that everybody talks about of healthy soils and healthy produce and does healthy gut? What have you seen there?
Greg Shewmaker: Well, so I’ll say first that we haven’t done a lot of looking into specific changes or practices on a farm. In fact, I think you’re going to be seeing him in a few weeks. David Montgomery: we actually have had a number of conversations with him where we’re actually going to work alongside David and his wife to do some studies on differenttypesof practices. So, hey, here’s a farm that’s practicing regenerative agriculture and here’s one that’s not. And what are the differences? So side by side comparisons.
Greg Shewmaker: Because the challenge today, I think from what I understand, the supply chain and the time I’ve spent in it is all the farms, a lot of farmers are trying to do the right thing and do better things and investing in regenerative agriculture. But once it hits the supply chain, then things are just called food.
Koen van Seijen: A lot of farmers almost are pushed into selling directly because the market and the commodity market just doesn’t value quality. And if they’ve done all the work, like you said, they invested they have been a lot of time building their soil and the market just pays the commodity price.
Greg Shewmaker: So in January of 2020, we’re launching what we call the food quality index. And essentially, it’s these top twelve produce items that we are now out basically scanning them in multiple markets. And when I say scanning, we’re just buying them as consumers would buy these foods. So you think about grapes and avocados and apples and blueberries and strawberries and spinach and bananas, all the common stuff that regardless of where you live. You know, are the staples, if you will. And we’re buying those as consumers and at multiple retailers at all different price points. And we’re just creating this massive dataset. And in January, we’ll share this with consumers and a couple different markets so they can start to interact with this data just to say, wow, you know, did you know this?
Greg Shewmaker: Simultaneously to that. We are working on some major retail pilots. That are building the business case up to say, well, this is not just about dropping a grenade into the marketplace and saying, hey, good luck with that retailers.
Greg Shewmaker: We’re saying, OK. Now we want to share this information with consumers because we think as consumers, we deserve it. But, you know, in addition to that, we’re building this use case with his business case, with these retailers to say, but we’re also fixing the problem.
Greg Shewmaker: So the reality with spinach and when I say spinach is really, you know, leafy greens. If you want to eat those for their nutrient contents, then you’re going to have to grow closer to where they’re consumed. Period.
Greg Shewmaker: You’re not going to be able to get leafy greens and spinach from the fields in southern Mexico to Europe or to the East Coast, the United States in time for them to have any material nutrient contents.