On this episode, Dave’s guests are Brent Overcash and Greg Shewmaker, co-founders of TeakOrigin, a Boston-based food data company on a mission to help us all make the best possible food decisions. TeakOrigin’s proprietary Nutritional Intelligence platform is able to measure nutrition at scale, revealing what is inside of the fruits, vegetables, and fresh foods we buy.

In a world where health is the new wealth, apps enable us to do anything with the tap of a button, and data is the new oil, the way we buy fruits and vegetables hasn’t changed for decades. We squeeze, sniff, and scan them without having any idea of what lies beneath their skin. Did you know that the average apple contains over 5 gigs of data? And that the calories in one avocado can be double those of another, and until now, there’s been no way to know the difference. TeakOrigin is changing that for shoppers, retailers and governments, helping solve quality, pricing and food waste problems on a global level. Greg and Brent share learnings from their entrepreneurial journey, including how they build teams, deal with stress, and why no one should ever take a first date to an Andrew Dice Clay or Public Enemy show. 


Podcast Highlights

1:51 – What is TeakOrigin? : Brent says, “Basically it’s a way for us to understand an individual’s food within 20 to 30 seconds. We use a lot of analytical chemistry and machine learning modeling to be able to scan a piece of food out in the field and tell you what the nutrient levels are inside that food.”

2:37 – We know so little about the nutrition in fresh foods: Greg says, “Think about all of the products out there and how much we know about them and all the information that’s available about them. And yet fresh foods are the least known of anything that we interact with on a daily basis. And when it’s just counter-intuitive, it goes against all conventional wisdom.”

4:03 – Nutritional data is out of date: Brent says, “We looked at avocados, that’s a great example of the last time fat content was updated and for avocados it was almost 20 years ago. Well, we don’t grow avocados like that anymore. We grow much higher fat avocados, but that data hasn’t caught up to the reality of the dynamism of that food. So the reality is that avocados we see today in the market are twice the caloric content that you believe that you’re eating. So you really don’t have any idea, but it’s such a critical piece.”

10:40 – Measuring nutritional intelligence: Brent says, “We developed something called a critical composition profile. Let’s use strawberries as an example, of all the chemicals and the nutrients that are in strawberries, there are really maybe 7, 9, 10, 12 chemicals that are really important.”

“Our data team can take those and then build very accurate prediction models based on the actual chemistry and the spectra.”

12:50 – How TeakOrigin establishes a market baseline: Greg says, “So our own staff or contractors go out on a daily basis and they buy foods just as we all do as consumers and all the major supermarkets in the US or many of the major supermarkets in the US and all the supermarkets in the UK. So we’ll go and we’ll buy strawberries and avocados and bananas and grapes and spinach, et cetera and we’ll take them back to a central location. And these days they are at our homes, and they’ll use this instrument that Brent described and they’ll scan these fruits and vegetables, and then we aggregate all that data on a daily basis. So that information is basically what we use to establish a market baseline.”

13:35 – How TeakOrigin serves retailers and producers: Grey says, “So maybe a retailer or a producer says, hey, I want to go a little bit deeper, will you ship me one of these instruments? Teach me how to use it, set me up on that and then I’m going to collect a lot more information inside of my supply chain. So I may go deep into blueberries, or I may go deeper into avocados, or maybe I want to just see what’s happening in the Pacific Northwest.

So then they collect that information on their own, and then we compile both components. So we say, hey, here’s how the market is doing. Here’s how you’re doing internally. And hey, here’s some interesting insights for you to either use, to communicate to your customers and or maybe go fix this specific problem that you didn’t know you had.”

15:40 – Cost doesn’t always equate to high quality or high nutrition: Greg says, “And I think the perception is that if I spend more money or if I shop at places that maybe has a higher sort of brand presence, like a Whole Foods or some specialty shop that I’m getting better food. And so that proves in the data because the data says that basically places like Walmart and Target have some of the lowest perceptions for fresh food quality, but what our insights are showing is that’s not true.”

“So you could actually get highly nutritious food at Walmarts and Target sometimes even better than you’re getting at Whole Foods or Costco. So it’s counterintuitive.“

17:53 – Retailers don’t know what they’re buying: Brent says, “These retailers are just as much in the dark as consumers, that they don’t know what they’re buying either. And this is also one of the things why we started with retailers. it’s a huge opportunity for retailers to help get the world better nutrition to significantly up the nutritional density of the fresh food that we sell and buy and eat.”

23:00 – Enabling consumers to make better decisions: Greg says, “There isn’t a one size fits all when it comes to consumer behavior. I think what this allows us to do is to augment that process where we’re never going to replace the most innate human characteristic is physical inspection of our food.”

26:20 – We know more about processed food than fresh food: Brent says “I can tell you more about Oreos and Graham crackers than anything else, but how is it possible that we know so much about cookies in a package or in a box? And I can’t tell you a single thing about an Apple other than maybe the farm it came from or the area that it grew out of. I have no idea of the nutritional content.”

31:00 – Food waste is getting worse every year: Greg says, “So right now there’s roughly 4,200 startups on the planet that are focused on reducing food waste. And yet the problem gets worse.” 

“We’re focused on food waste at a consumer level, believing that if we can increase the relevance of fresh foods that people are buying, that we think that they’ll throw less food away.”

44:40 – Benefits of being opinionated: Brent says, “An immediate opinion will garner lots of other comments and discussion. I may not be right, but at least it gets the conversation started. I can’t tell you how many discussions Greg and I have had sitting in some random country drinking wine and you know, me saying something completely stupid, but it then spawns this conversation between the two of us. And then we end up coming up with some new way of looking at it or some kind of different aspect of what we’re all about.”

49:24 – Finding work that you feel strongly about: Greg says, “It feels like there’s less pressure to have to deliver on the job and then go find something different. It’s kind of like, well, this is what I’ve obsessed or I think about all the time. It just feels like it becomes a way of life versus a career to manage, or, you know, it’s something that I have to think about as a to-do list versus this is just who I am.”