Friedman Hosts the 2018 Global Food+ Symposium

by Sam Jones

The second annual Global Food+ Symposium was hosted at Tufts University’s Friedman School this year. Innovative research being conducted at Tufts, MIT, Boston University, and Harvard University in the realm of the global food system was presented in speed-dating style, with each speaker giving only a seven-minute talk. Only some of the takeaways are reported here; the entire event can be viewed online.

February 16, 2018 marked the second annual Global Food+ Symposium, hosted by Tufts University at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. This year, 23 researchers from Boston University, MIT, Harvard, and Tufts shared the findings of their work in seven-minute presentations on topics ranging from microbiology to nutrition to theology. I attended the conference in its entirety from 12:30 to 4:30 on a Friday afternoon because I wanted to learn about what other researching in our consortium of schools are investigating to gain insight into what the non-Friedman community has to say about the global food system.

Throughout the afternoon, speakers presented fascinating research that touched every corner of the food system. Several presenters from Harvard and MIT discussed how water affects our food system, covering everything from breeding crops to use less water, to developing more adaptable water conserving technologies, and the ramifications of developing a water market in which price reflects scarcity. These speakers together illustrated that whether in the Zambezi River Basin or in Melbourne, Australia, water use and availability affects our food system, but there are steps we can take right now to plan for uncertainty in the face of climate change.

Nutrition was, of course, the subject of several of the presentations. Tufts professor Will Masters discussed his findings on the nutritional quality of baby food. Spoiler alert: the global baby food supply is not actually that nutritious. Alison Brown, a post-doctoral fellow at Tufts presented the research from her dissertation comparing the diet quality and risk of hypertension in foreign-born non-Hispanic blacks to those of U.S.-born blacks. Her findings suggest that the former are better-off than the latter. While useful for developing culturally-appropriate nutrition strategies, it does not delve into the root causes of these differences. A more causal-based study would be useful if the intention were to narrow the gap in diet quality and health between these groups.

Most of the presenters at the symposium used or researched cutting-edge technology to answer some of the most vexing problems in our global food system. Karthish Manthiram from MIT, for example, presented his research on how electricity derived from solar panels can be used to create fertilizer. His research found that by using electric voltage in place of high temperatures, a low-footprint nitrogen fertilizer can be created and used by small-scale farmers in even the remotest parts of Africa.

Angela Rigden, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, presented exciting research derived from new satellite data. These data showed that vapor pressure and root zone soil moisture actually explain significantly more variability in crop yields than does temperature alone. Both Jenny Aker from Tufts and Alicia Harley from Harvard separately explored the effects of having access to technology for poor farmers in Africa and India, respectively. They found that even where a technology exists, the targeted problems may not be solved in exactly the way they were intended. For example, Alicia Harley’s research found that poorer rice farmers were not adopting a system of rice intensification (SRI) that used less water because such a practice required control over one’s water source—a luxury most poor farmers do not have. As Jenny Aker put it, one specific technology is “not going to be a silver bullet.”

Water, technology, health, and sustainability were the overarching themes that wove the presentations together. But one researcher stood alone both in his discipline and in his ability to wow an audience of entirely dissimilar mindsets. Dan McKanan, a senior lecturer in Divinity at Harvard University, revealed that the foundations of organic agriculture, organic certification, WWOOFing, biodynamic agriculture, community supported agriculture, and the environmentalist movement all sprung out of a religion called Anthroposophy. In his words, this was a religion that acted as an antidote to the ideological monoculture system—an antidote to the “monocultures of the mind.”

What the innovative research presented at the Global Food+ Symposium made me realize is that there probably will never be a “silver bullet” that can solve the issues of water scarcity, food insecurity, malnutrition, or climate change. But the research that is being done in these interdisciplinary and diverse fields is worth pursuing, whether it aims to solve a big problem in a small place or a small problem on a global scale.

Sam Jones is a first-year AFE student with a passion for sharing others’ stories. She is currently an intern at Culture Magazine nd hopes to pursue a career in sustainable agricultural development and food journalism.

Branchfood Holds First in 4-Part Panel Series on Technological Innovation in Food and Farming

by Laura Barley

On February 22, Branchfood hosted the first panel in a four-part series entitled The Future of Food, exploring innovation in agriculture, food products, nutrition, and retail. Second-year AFE student Laura Barley attended The Future of Agriculture panel, and reports on the exciting developments on the industry’s horizon. Don’t miss the rest of the series! (Details below.)

As part of its mission to connect food innovators from the local to the global, last Thursday February 22 Branchfood debuted the first in a four-part series of panels devoted to the future of food systems. The Future of Agriculture convened four ambitious leaders for a discussion on the role of data and technological innovation in agriculture, and how they can contribute to the greater vision of global sustainability.

The panel, moderated by the charismatic captain of the Entrepreneur Agrarian Fund, Aaron Niederhelman, focused heavily on one recurring theme: digital disruption. And for a field so central to the health of the planet, this kind of disruption may just be the type of makeover that agriculture needs to account for its externalities.

Water scarcity, greenhouse gas emissions, and chemical run-off continue to plague large-scale agriculture all over the world, so the implicit question underlying the panel remains: in a world where machines can now compile and analyze massive amounts of data, how can we teach sophisticated machines to solve agriculture’s most complex problems?

Lauren Moores, Vijay Somandepalli, Lawrence Wang, and Brett Brohl discuss their work in agriculture tech and data science. Aaron Niederhelman moderates. (Image source: Author)

Lauren Moores, Vijay Somandepalli, Lawrence Wang, and Brett Brohl discuss their work in agriculture tech and data science. Aaron Niederhelman moderates. (Image source: Author)

For Vijay Somandepalli, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at American Robotics, the answer lies in automation, though developing this technology hasn’t always been as straightforward as it seems. “Lots of drones work, but almost none of them are actually used,” Vijay admitted.

To counter the trend, he and his team have developed the first fully-automated field drone, which independently collects and analyzes crop field data from launch to landing. From his point of view, automation is one step closer to ensuring that the benefits of drone technology are actually implemented—if farmers don’t have to manually monitor their field data, they and their workers can spend their time on tasks better suited to human hands. Given the continued trend toward farm consolidation, where the average size of an American farm is 234 acres and half are more than 1,100 acres, this can translate into an incredible amount of saved time and energy.

Essentially, automation has the potential to become the hallmark of precision agriculture, where farmers can build trust in technology to deliver the efficiency gains they need to remain profitable. This vision for technology was echoed by the other panelists, each of whom has the power to influence agricultural production trends on a global scale.

Lawrence Wang, Digitalization and Analytics Strategy Lead at Cargill, spoke to the promising commitment that the multi-national agribusiness company has made towards technological innovation and sustainability. Cargill has partnered with Ecolab and Techstars to create a Farm to Fork Accelerator, an entrepreneurship program dedicated to bringing some of the leading ideas in food safety, manufacturing, and food waste to fruition.

Brett Brohl, Managing Director of the Techstars accelerator program, contends that “The timing is right—there’s a bunch of venture capital moving into food innovation in the last several years.” For a behemoth processing and manufacturing corporation like Cargill, which largely contributes to the nine billion animals slaughtered in the US each year, re-shaping conventional systems of meat production could have widespread implications. Concepts like traceability and transparency have become increasingly popular among consumers, and in an attempt to gauge consumer interest and trust, Cargill has even started to trace each Thanksgiving turkey all the way back to the start of its supply chain.

But for Lauren Moores, VP of Data Strategy and Data Sciences at Indigo Agriculture, data amounts to more than the results it produces. She believes that data analysis is fundamentally a storytelling challenge, and in her line of work, that challenge means simplifying the vast complexity of the plant-soil microbiome. As a prominent Boston startup, Indigo works to tap the potential of the microbes that have evolved in conjunction with plants over time, ultimately to produce a seed coating that maximizes plant health and productivity. The universe of the microbiome is still so elusive, and the microbial cocktail of Indigo’s seed coatings is complex enough to warrant selection by machine learning just to refine the tens of thousands of possible strains available.

Lauren also acknowledges that “farmers know their land better than anyone,” and that Indigo’s role is to develop data to help them cultivate their land more sustainably. The standing paradigm of the microbiome, which Indigo is actively researching, suggests that the biology of bacteria and fungi can enhance crop water and nutrient uptake, so that excessive irrigation and synthetic nutrients won’t need to be applied as frequently.

Interestingly, Vijay’s drone technology aims to reduce the need for agricultural inputs from a slightly different angle—drone imagery can pinpoint nutrient deficiency and other crop ailments at a much higher resolution than even the farmer’s own eye. Where a farmer used to apply chemicals to a whole field just to cover their bases, they can now apply them only to the specific areas in need.

This is the story of technological efficiency—and optimism—that these innovators are trying to write. Collectively our minds are capable of pioneering solutions to the problems of our past’s conventions, and agriculture isn’t the only sector that could use a technological re-vamp. To bring awareness to innovation materializing throughout the whole food system, Branchfood is hosting three further panels on the Future of Food Products, the Future of Nutrition, and the Future of Grocery respectively on March 22, April 26, and May 24. The panels will continue to bring visionary food minds together, to share and inspire how our collective food story will evolve.

Correction, March 7, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify that Indigo Agriculture uses data about plant-soil microbiomes to develop seed treatments that enhance plant health and productivity. –Editors

Laura Barley is a second-year Agriculture, Food, and Environment master’s student ceaselessly curious about the complexity that global food systems has to offer. She’s always happy to indulge conversation at

Game Changer: How Cellular Agriculture is Poised to Revolutionize Dairy and Meat

by Kathleen Nay

We already know that conventionally-produced animal products are problematic—animal agriculture is land, water, and energy intensive, and potentially harmful to human health and animal welfare. For most people though, meat and dairy are also delicious. What if there was a cleaner, greener way of producing our favorite animal-derived foods? Turns out, the science already exists.

Henry Ford With 1921 Model T. (Image source: Ford Motor Company / Wikimedia)

Henry Ford With 1921 Model T. (Image source: Ford Motor Company / Wikimedia)

Nearly a century ago, Henry Ford had a vision. What he’s best known for is a vision of the modern automobile: a future where humans on four-wheeled machines hurtle through space at 60 miles per hour. But while that particular vision revolutionized the world as we know it today, Ford also dreamed of another future—one that minimized the role of animals in agriculture.

In 1921, Ford told the New York Tribune, “The cow is the crudest machine in the world. Our laboratories have already demonstrated that cow’s milk can be done away with and the concentration of the elements of milk can be manufactured into scientific food by machines far cleaner than cows and not subject to tuberculosis,” (a pathogen transmitted through raw milk, and a major public health concern at the time).

What Ford envisioned was probably similar to the soy and nut milks we’re familiar with today. He also happened to be a big proponent of the soybean as a meat substitute: in 1939, he caused a kerfuffle among American butchers when he predicted that soy-based foods would entirely replace our need to raise cows at all. His predictions were likely in the service of his goal to decentralize car manufacturing and put farmers to work in factories instead of in barns. In that sense, his prediction was right. The mechanical revolution of the 1920’s fueled migration from fields into cities, where factory work was more promising than life on the farm that was increasingly reliant on mechanical efficiency.

Fast-forward ninety-seven years, and advances in food technology are inching us ever closer to realizing Henry Ford’s wildest cow-less dreams. Enter Tufts University alum, Ryan Pandya. Three years ago, I wrote about Muufri, the company Ryan cofounded with Perumal Gandhi. Together, they’re using what’s called “cellular agriculture” to commercialize the first animal-free dairy milk. Cellular ag is the production of animal products like meat, milk, eggs, and leather from cell cultures, rather than a farm. In other words, their product is not one of the many plant-based milks that are already on the market today, but real dairy proteins—namely, casein and whey—that are grown using yeast cells specially engineered to produce them using fermentation. Essentially, Ryan and Perumal are building milk protein by protein, without all the expenses, energy, water, land, or emissions associated with growing, feeding and housing cattle.

Image source: Perfect Day via Food Navigator

Image source: Perfect Day via Food Navigator USA

Much has changed for the company in the last three years. For starters, Muufri has undergone rebranding as Perfect Day. Ryan says that the new name more accurately reflects their forward-looking philosophy. Muufri (“moo-free”) felt limiting; they wanted to focus on what they are bringing to food, not what they’re leaving out of it. They came across a 2001 study by two psychologists which demonstrated that certain songs, when played for Holstein herds, increase milk yields. Lou Reed’s 1972 track “Perfect Day” was one such milk-maximizing song. “As a company on a mission to make cows, people, and the planet happier,” reads Perfect Day’s FAQ page, “it seemed like a perfect fit.”

Over the last few years Perfect Day has expanded their target market, graduating from products confined to the refrigerated dairy section to… well, the whole supermarket. “Fundamentally, milk proteins add functionality or nutrition to products in every part of the grocery store,” Ryan told me. Dairy is found in products you may not expect, from soups and tomato sauces, to dressings, condiments and baked goods. “If you can name a part of the grocery store, I can find you a product where dairy is involved.” Although they still plan to produce some fresh dairy products, from a business perspective, Ryan sees a much larger market for Perfect Day’s milk proteins that would extend their reach beyond the fresh dairy case. Since their process omits lactose, even those who suffer from lactose intolerance would be able to enjoy dairy-containing products without compromising digestive comfort.

Food manufacturers that use dairy in their products are watching Perfect Day with interest. They’re used to using milk proteins with a specific ratio of components, but it’s cost-prohibitive to separate and isolate the proteins they need for specific functions in their foods. Since Perfect Day has the advantage of making these proteins individually, saving food manufacturers the added cost and effort of breaking down whole, unprocessed milk into its component parts, the company is able to tap into a much broader functionality.

The food industry, investors, even the government—according to Ryan, they “get” it. Perfect Day is well on its way toward establishing GRAS (“Generally Recognized As Safe”) designation through the FDA. In fact, the regulatory process for the product is relatively straightforward—Perfect Day’s milk proteins are created in much the same way as many other products we use every day. All kinds of flavor and fragrance additives are made using fermentation processes. Look at the label of almost any cheese made in the US and you’re likely to find a reference to “non-animal rennet” or “microbial enzymes.” Rennet, a key ingredient in cheese, used to be obtained from slaughtered calves, but is now more commonly made using fermentation. Perfect Day’s process is similar, and the tech it uses is by no means new—it’s the application that’s novel. “Although we’ve had the technology for about 40 years, Perfect Day is first company to really care about it and talk about it,” says Ryan.

New Harvest Cultured Tissue Fellow Natalie Rubio. (Image source: Natalie Rubio)

New Harvest Cultured Tissue Fellow Natalie Rubio. (Image source: Natalie Rubio)

Milk isn’t the only cellular ag product on the horizon. Although we’re a little further away from commercializing cultured meat, one Tufts University PhD student is advancing the research that may one day make it possible to buy a piece of steak that was never attached to a cow. Natalie Rubio got her start in cellular ag first as a volunteer with New Harvest—the institute that gave Perfect Day its initial seed money—and later as an intern during the early days of Perfect Day (when the nascent company was still known as Muufri, in 2014). Since then, New Harvest has launched a research fellowship, naming Natalie as the first New Harvest Cultured Tissue Fellow.

Natalie says that even as an intern at Perfect Day, she knew she wanted to work on meat. “The biotech industry has been using cells to produce proteins [for various products] for many years,” she tells me. “The idea of using whole cell cultures themselves as a product is more novel. We can use the tissue engineering techniques to create meat from cell cultures without involving livestock, besides donor animals for the initial biopsy.”

She explains that there are three main focus areas in the emerging field of cultured tissue research. The first area aims to develop new, animal-free sources of growth media used to feed the cells. When tissue cells are growing, they basically float in a liquid mixture of sugar water, some proteins, and a substance called fetal bovine serum. While the base formulation of sugar water, vitamins and minerals is animal free, the bovine serum supplement is a byproduct of the meat industry. It makes for a great environment for growing tissue cultures, but since the goal of this field of research is to avoid using animals, scientists are searching for substances to use in place of fetal bovine serum.

Another focus of this work, says Natalie, is obtaining and tinkering with new cell lines. The initial cells are biopsied from domestic species like turkey, bovine, fish, or any other species of interest. Stem cells, which are capable of prolific growth and differentiation, are isolated and extracted for use in tissue cultures. Scientists are then able to tell the stem cells how to behave and what to become; in the case of cultured meat, they become muscle, but scientists can also direct stem cells to become tissues with other properties, like fat.

The focus of Natalie’s research is scaffolding. “Think of the scaffold as everything besides the cells themselves,” she tells me. “In our bodies, we have muscle cells, but that’s not all that our muscle is. It’s also surrounded by this matrix of proteins, primarily collagen, that make up muscle. I’m trying to emulate these other substances by using animal free materials.” Her work overlaps with the engineering of human skeletal muscle tissues that are already used routinely in regenerative medicine. Someday in the not-too-distant future, we could grill animal-free steaks with the same fibrous, muscle-y appearance and texture that we expect from meat.

Lest the idea of lab-grown meat or milk stoke anyone’s fears of genetic modification, Natalie sets the record straight: these products do not contain GM ingredients. She explains that tissue culturing does not involve manipulating any genes. She describes the cells they use in her field as “proliferative,” meaning they are naturally inclined to grow and multiply according to the instructions encoded in their DNA—no gene tinkering required. And while Perfect Day’s process does involve genetically modifying yeast cells to make milk proteins, the GM yeast is carefully filtered out of the milk before being added to any food products. This process of altering yeast’s genetic code to make proteins is exactly the same way vegetarian rennet, vanilla, insulin, and many other everyday products are made. (New Harvest’s FAQ goes into further detail about the role of GMO in cellular agriculture, as well as other common questions that come up around this emerging industry.)

Natalie Rubio conducts her research at the David Kaplan lab at Tufts University. (Image source: Natalie Rubio)

Natalie Rubio conducts her research at the Kaplan Laboratory at the Department of Biomedical Engineering, on Tufts University’s Medford campus. (Image source: Natalie Rubio)

Cellular agriculture is not so much a new technology as it is a new application for the technology we’ve long used in medicine and pharmaceuticals. It seeks to avoid some of the ongoing problems we have with animal agriculture. For example, producing meat and milk in sterile environments reduces the risk of contamination from pathogens. (Remember Ford’s concern about tuberculosis?) The ability to scale up these processes could also have positive implications for agricultural land use in the U.S. Imagine converting some of the 170 million acres currently planted with corn and soy into specialty crops, expanding our ability to produce and harvest solar energy, or reaping the ecological benefits of putting more land into conservation—all while reducing the emissions associated with animal agriculture.

While Henry Ford may have envisioned a world devoid of cattle, Ryan Pandya, for his part, is quick to assure me that the goal of cellular agriculture is not to upend the dairy or meat industries. “Demand is increasing for animal products all over the world—such a demand that the world’s farmers can’t keep up. I hope we can create a complementary supply chain that will take some of that pressure off.” He sees a future where, instead of abolishing animal products entirely, consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that have the traditional touch of animal farming.

It’s a future that’s increasingly easy to imagine.

Kathleen Nay is a third-year dual degree student in the Agriculture, Food & Environment and Urban & Environmental Policy & Planning programs and a co-editor of The Friedman Sprout.

Food Techies Commence: Insights from Branchfood’s November Panel

by Micaela Young

Perkins + Will, an architecture firm in downtown Boston, was the unlikely gathering place of health and food innovators on Wednesday, November 16. The event? Friedman alum and Branchfood founder Lauren Abda hosted an evening entitled “Innovators in Food Tech & Health,” a panel discussion and product tasting event showcasing startups and companies creating new solutions to age old problems of behavior change. Discussed was everything from the potential for food tech as a tool in preventative health, to how innovative start-up apps are using new ways to promote healthy eating and exercising.

At networking events, I am usually the awkward person standing in the periphery, deeply enveloped in conversations that I am actually not a part of. (Sigh.) But that was not the case at Branchfood’s November event. Geeking out about food with innovators, including students at Harvard developing solutions to refugee access to fresh produce, and the founder of a small, New Hampshire based fermented food company, MicroMama’s, this Friedmanite fit right in.

These start-ups were all brought together by Lauren Abda, a Friedman alum who is herself an innovator. After graduating from the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program in 2012, she worked at the World Trade Organization in Geneva for two years as a Fellow in the Agriculture and Commodities Division. Ready for a change of scenery, Lauren came back to Boston and worked for a tech company called Litmus. Noticing that food tech and start-ups were fragmented, that there was poor flow and knowledge sharing between entrepreneurs in Boston—a hub for innovation—and that new companies needed support, Lauren started a meet-up group that eventually became Branchfood, which now offers monthly events, panels, classes, newsletters, networking meet-ups, and office hours for people looking to launch ventures in a slightly more informed way. Branchfood also leases space in their downtown Boston office to budding creatives and companies in need of a place to plant their seeds.

Branchfood’s November 2016 panel discussion took place at Perkins + Will, a global architecture firm with a number of projects focused on health and wellness. David Dymecki, the Sports and Recreation Global Market Leader, explained in his kick-off welcome speech that not only is the firm seeing a growing trend in active design, but that food is an important part of office culture. “The next best thing about eating good food,” Dymecki noted, “is talking about good food.” I certainly can’t argue with that!

Janelle Nanos, an esteemed reporter at the Boston Globe who covers tech and innovation, as well as the business of food (she interviewed our own Tim Griffin for a story on hydroponics in November), began by having the panelists introduce themselves:

In the first seat was Jake Cacciapaglia, VP of Media at Runkeeper, a mobile running app that helps runners, from weekending warriors to seasoned marathoners. With over 50 million users, the app was recently acquired by Asics in March, presenting a new challenge for Cacciapaglia and his team in learning how to find balance between the app and its users, the marketing and selling of shoes and apparel, and helping Asics be more relevant in the digital world. The app incorporates nutrition guidance by partnering with apps like LoseIt! and MyFitnessPal.

Next up was Kyle Cahill, the Director of Sustainability and Environmental Health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. Cahill’s biggest focus is on understanding how environmental factors influence society’s health.

The fourth panelist was Tara McCarthy, chief dietitian and co-founder of Kindrdfood, an app bringing focus to people who need to change their diet—for medical reasons—and bringing her expertise into their homes. McCarthy has also worked at Boston Children’s Hospital part-time since 2001.

Last but not least was Ian Brady, the Chief Executive of AVA, an app providing personalized nutritional guidance. Using their technology that is a combo plate of human intelligence (dietitians), plus robots, AVA is able to use client’s goals and food preferences to provide real-time recommendations that adapt “on the fly.” Oh—and AVA can tell you the macronutrient composition of a meal with just a photo! (Cue animated mind exploding clip.)

Nanos: What is your target audience? 

Cacciapaglia noted that most of their users are just trying to make running a part of the lifestyle, with a primary goal of weight loss. But the app isn’t just for helping weekend warriors form habits, or guiding experienced runners through harder training plans and race goals.  The ultimate target, Cacciapaglia says, are those who aren’t motivated, who aren’t likely to hit download in the first place.

Turns out this was a major theme of the night: amotivation.

Our health is multifactorial, noted Cahill, driven by our genes, our choices, and our environments, yet most of our resourceso to treating people once they are sick. “Food is cross cutting…the availability and quality of food, as well as where you live plays a significant role in food choices.” At Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cahill and colleagues bring an ecologic model to thinking about health, from individual choices to food system decisions.

Kindrdfood, McCarthy explained, targets anyone with health conditions, anyone who needs to change the way they eat. McCarthy then eloquently described the “care gap” between physician instructions (eat these foods; these foods are off limits) and what is actually put on the table, or taken to school in a lunchbox. Targeting all ages—although she admitted adults follow instructions better when the change is for their children—Kindrdfood attracts those who have just been diagnosed and are motivated to seek help. “The uphill battle,” said McCarthy, “is reaching those who do not think they need to change.”

Brady added that the common thread of why AVA users sign on is convenience, for real-time instant access (the “just tell me what to eat” folks). But the app also helps users manage conditions and link well-being with food. AVA targets those who want to change, but want help doing so.

Nanos: What do you see technology doing for your company?

Cahill took this question first, explaining that Blue Cross has an investment arm, called Zaffre, that is involved in helping local start-ups. One example in their portfolio is Zest Health, a platform for helping people access and navigate healthcare benefits, medical information and provider options more efficiently. But Zaffre’s investments are not just for linking patients to providers technologically, Cahill noted. They also prop up those who are using technology on the preventative side. For this, Cahill gave the example of Ovuline, a fertility trackernd health guidance app that follows women from preconception through child raising.

McCarthy then spoke of how telehealth, or video chatting with clients, is Kindrdfood’s only way of reaching clients. Why? Because it’s easy for families, McCarthy explained, and practitioners are able to be in their living rooms with them. “I get a lot more out of a visit when I am in their house. Being in their house, seeing how comfortable they are, seeing their actual food, seeing that they don’t have a table, seeing that the baby or child eats on the floor…that piece is huge.” McCarthy also explained that video chatting enables her to reach multiple caregivers, whereas in a traditional hospital or appointment setting you may not. And patients usually request more frequent visits than would normally be recommended. Telehealth adds an element of convenience inpatient appointments cannot come close to. However, the broken piece, she said, is connecting healthcare to use all of these technologies in sync.

Cacciapaglia echoed that telehealth is a great tool technology can offer, but noted that he has observed that maintaining app use and behavior change after these conversations was hard for clients even though the quality of time spent with the dietitian was great. But he was hopeful. “Having a nutritionist seems out of reach,” Cacciapaglia said. “It is expensive to have a one-on-one session and is hard to find the time, but it is now becoming more accessible.”

Because Brady and his team at AVA did not explicitly tell clients whether their recommendations and dietary information was coming from a person or a robot—keeping it vague—he has found that clients share more information than they might one-on-one with a dietitian. “People don’t have to look at someone through a video chat interface and share the bad thing they just did.” Instead, they can send it over text. This personal distance, whether good or bad, seems to be working for AVA, who sees the technology moving into forecasting, making proactive recommendations to clients to help them make the right choice—before they have to make it. How? Well, Brady explained that the technology uses natural language processing that attempts to tailor the response based on the question. The technical piece, however, is made up of a “backbone” of dietitians.

Nanos: What do you think the data you are pulling now could potentially do? What could we learn?

Cahill sees that the data he and his colleagues are pulling could be used on the population level. His vision is the creation of robust mapping tools that could integrate their data with public data sets around things that impact health, including where someone lives, the food environment, and access to medical clinics. Blue Cross Blue Shield could then zero-in to better work with employers on healthcare and interventions. Cahill explained that he would also like to use their data to promote a more holistic view in healthcare that includes nutrition habits, someone’s income, and other social issues that impact health. As an example, Cahill noted that he’s a vegetarian, “but my doctor’s never asked me that. May be nice to know—maybe not.”

AVA is looking for data to help fuel client’s motivation, to keep them accountable. Brady said that they leverage Myers-Briggs profiles, which he believes helps AVA take note of how an individual typically behaves and converses in order to best match responses, tailoring the conversation to the users’ level. Brady explained that if you speak formally, AVA wants to “speak” formally. And vice versa. “We often describe internally that we have ‘Ava’ who is sort-of middle of the road, then we have an ‘Emma’ version who is very supportive and will never yell at you for what you eat,” Brady said. “And then we have an ‘Olga’ version, who is very direct—you will not like the feedback you are going to get. I tried Olga, but I had to switch.”

Maybe Isaac Asimov was on to something…

Cacciapaglia sees the data as adding value to the customer experience, while making the app more relevant in runners’ lives. “Not only are we trying to figure out who is most valuable to us as a customer,” he said, “but we want to try and map out the journey of each of the members and be more relevant in that journey. For example, you can serve ads to someone on Facebook or in whatever app you are in, but if it’s not the right time or it doesn’t speak to you, we’re like ‘get out of my face’ with that stuff.”

Nanos: Where would you love to see the technology advance to?

McCarthy was eager to answer Nanos’ last question of the night. “I would love to see that we are not talking so much about medicine and talking more about prevention.” Her vision: “When you pull up someone’s e-medical records, a food button is there. We want that to be a focus, so it’s not an afterthought—it’s not skipped. A future where everyone is trained in food, everyone talks about food. I feel that it is a part that gets missed…these are big things.” To bring the point home, McCarthy recounts a time when a child’s healthcare team thought she was having a GI bleed. It turns out that the red fluid in the child’s tube was not blood at all, but beets that the child had eaten earlier in the day!

Then Brady took the floor. “Our ultimate goal is to help people fall in love with food again.” He aims for AVA to help clients be able to sit down and enjoy the experience—before, during, and after eating. “Our goal is to help people find that connection again.”

Cahill explained that he envisions technology helping to fix our broken food system, whether that means people’s appreciation of food, or if it means the process of getting food from field to table. “More money now goes into getting people to eat junk food that they shouldn’t eat than the other way around.”

In the last comment of the night, Cacciapaglia topped us off by reminding everyone that it is really hard to make healthy decisions all the time. (I hear you loud and clear, Jake!) “One thing that is really frustrating,” Cacciapaglia said, “is that I’m in my 30s and I still don’t understand what happens when I put something in my body and what my body is doing with that thing. Our education system doesn’t do a good job—unless you do a specific track to get that knowledge—we don’t really know.” He noted that we are left to discern media messages and advertisement intentions on our own. “Even with great effort on my part, I still have the question: ‘So what should I do?’ Technology can be powerful in making this journey a lot easier for an individual to take action, avoid temptation, and shape the environment in a way to do so.”


Branchfood’s November event was an interesting look into a side of the industry we don’t often talk about in classes at Friedman. Behavior change and motivation issues, however, are a constant topic of conversation. It seems that while technology can be a powerful tool to evoke change in those who are motivated, it is not yet the magic bullet of prevention. Only time will tell.

I encourage Sprout readers to check out Branchfood’s upcoming events HERE.

Micaela Young is a second-year Nutrition Communication student trying to soak up as much of Boston life as she can before graduation. First on her Boston bucket list is attending more Branchfood events!