Can a Former Women’s Clothing Guru Change the Conversation About Food?

The food business is on the verge of major change, and after talking with Christine Day it is clear she wants to be one of the drivers.

Day is the CEO of Luvo, a fast-growing company offering balanced, prepared meals for people on the go, right from the grocery freezer aisle. Named one of Fast Company’s 50 Most Innovative Companies in 2014, Luvo makes meals that are high in nutrients and low in calories that actually taste good. So, they are not making your grandma’s T.V. dinners. Think more veggie lasagna, less Salisbury steak.

But there’s still an awful lot of other cheap, salt and fat laden food options out there, luring people into a vicious cycle of poor health and weight problems.

“I see an industry that needs disruption,” she says. That’s because much of the conversation around food is about whether something is organic, GMO-free, gluten-free, and so on, not whether it’s actually nutritious.

“You know, they’re talking about ‘clean’ food but they’re not talking about whether it should be more than white rice, black beans and a salt sauce.”

Day has a bit of history in the food business, namely as president of Asia Pacific Operations for Starbucks Corporation, but more recently, she was known for heading up the cultish yoga clothing company, Lululemon Athletica, Inc.

Just because it's organic doesn't mean it's good for you. Photograph by Gallo Images/Neil Overy/Getty Images

Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Photograph by Gallo Images/Neil Overy/Getty Images

All of these companies are out to change the world, but use different mediums, she says. And now at Luvo, Day’s focus is on changing the conversation about nutrition.

So, what about all those parents trying to be virtuous by buying organic macaroni and cheese? “It’s white sugar pasta with a sodium sauce. It might be ‘clean,’ but it’s not necessarily healthy,” she says.

It’s not parents’ fault, she says. Information about the foods we eat is often confusing, outdated, or deliberately glossed over as part of a marketing campaign. According to Day, all a parent should have to worry about is “Do I want chicken enchiladas or turkey meatloaf,” not whether the food choices they make for their children will lead to type 2 diabetes.

Caleb Harper

Caleb Harper, growing food in his lab at MIT. Photograph by Lynn Johnson for National Geographic

Day says food companies need to move away from making products that are unhealthy and addictive—“that’s an old psychology from tobacco companies,” she says—and move towards those that encourage better nutrition.

That’s hard for big companies who have legacy brands to support (“If I am Kraft … I can’t trash Velveeta”). But many are trying to diversify their portfolios and invest in smaller companies who can more easily approach food differently, she says.

“The food industry—we know the truth about sugar, but we’re not telling it.  And I think the organic industry has become as bad as the mainstream,” Day says. “Just because it’s organic and has a cute animal on the front” doesn’t make it good for you.

A big component of changing the narrative to nutrition will be educating the public. “We need to teach the consequences and cost of what they’re eating.”

But will people trust food companies to educate them, given the ugly fights over GMOs, corn syrup, and the like?

Day says Luvo is trying to create a trusted brand through research and transparency.

“I think science in some ways has become a dirty word with food, and it doesn’t have to be,” she says.

Going forward, there’s a lot of work to do to feed the nine billion people expected to populate the planet by 2050. People want to live a healthy life and are looking for leaders in food that will tell them the truth. “The bringing together of science, technology, retail companies and transparency is what’s needed to create the future right now,” says Day, and I for one agree.

Like Christine Day’s take on the Future of Food? Disagree? Day will participate in a panel on transparency in the food industry at a food and technology conference called reThink Food in Napa Valley, California, November 6-8. The conference is sponsored by the Culinary Institute of America and MIT’s Media Lab, and National Geographic is a media sponsor.

Caleb Harper is a 2015 National Geographic Emerging Explorer and a Research Scientist at MIT’s Media Lab, working to reinvent how we grow healthy food in cities. Follow him on Twitter/Instagram @calebgrowsfood.

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