Naomi Poe & Better Batter Part 3: GMOs, Fad Diets, and Making a Positive Difference

In addition to celiac disease, what other allergies and intolerances to you have?

I know I’ve always had an allergy to bee stings. The list has just gotten worse from there. Of course, I’m gluten intolerant because of the celiac, but I’m also intolerant to bovine casein (cows’ milk) and we suspect soy.

About two years ago, I went into anaphylaxis, randomly, to some cantaloupe I was eating. Long story short, I was diagnosed with a severe form of oral allergy syndrome, which means that I am so allergic to environmental allergens that I cross react with any proteins that are similar. One percent of the population has a reaction like I do. So I’m not really allergic to cantaloupe, but the protein in melons is like the protein in ragweed, so I go anaphylactic on it. Fun times, right?

The funny thing is when it really started getting bad is when I started having immunotherapy, which is when they inject tiny amounts of it [an allergen] to try to get your body used to it. It made me more allergic. In the last two years when I was going through immunotherapy, my allergies went like a bell curve in the wrong direction. So now I’m violently allergic to a lot of things—any melons, any gourds, romaine lettuce, all tree nuts but not coconut. Random stuff like Shea butter and peanuts—and chicken! That’s all been in the last year to two years. Those are all anaphylactic level allergies, so I have all the EpiPens with me. I’m allergic to latex, so anything with natural latex derivatives or subderivatives I’m allergic to—bananas, avocados—I could keep going. My list is bizarrely long and continues to grow.

How does having food-related allergies and intolerances affect the way you think about and run your food-based company?

I used to look at people with all these allergies and wonder how they did it and if they were maybe (just a little) developing a few phobias in addition to the real allergies. And now I’m that person, and people wonder that about me. I can relate and sympathize, and my life is at risk. So the safety of our products is extremely important to me.

Because I’ll never be able to eat ‘normally’ again, the quality of our products is equally important. We do double blind taste tests. My dad (the chef) has celiac disease and still does occasional charitable or catering events. He uses our products. It doesn’t matter if he’s cooking for 400 people; he’s making it all gluten free, so he doesn’t get sick. And if he can’t serve it without mentioning it’s gluten free, it’s never going to make our product line.

I hear you are very meticulous about the quality of your ingredients. Could you share some details about that?

I’m obsessive because I’m a cancer survivor. Our co-packers are our facilities that do our mixing for us. They have access to every source in the world. And so we work with them because we have these other certifications. We have the GIG (Gluten Intolerance Group) GFCO certification, the AIB/BRC grade A certification, the Kosher certification, the Halal certification. The plant has the organic and vegan certifications, which required GM (genetically modified) free status. By the time you’ve sourced that, you’ve pretty much sourced a very safe product.

Do you use Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) in your products?

Our stuff is GMO free, and we are working toward official certification status by 2018. We talk about the wheat being genetically modified, maybe not in a way that causes you to grow antlers, but it’s definitely causing some reactions in the human body with the increased rate of celiac. That hits me particularly hard. Who knows what else we might become intolerant to because of similar practices?

Frankly, I don’t like the idea that a good deal of the genetic modification is so that you can bomb the plants with pesticides that were once used as chemical warfare. If I’m trying to stay cancer free, the ability to bomb plants with chemicals isn’t really a good goal to have, so the use of GM ingredients doesn’t fit my agenda.

What are your thoughts on genetic modification of foods?

I’m a little bit more of a moderate theorist when it comes to plant propagation. We have engaged in genetic modification for thousands of years, like with tomatoes. You breed it and breed it and breed it, so you can have an early tomato and a late tomato. That is genetic modification on a different scale. I think when we talk about GM foods, we’re talking about big companies owning rights to genes, and we’re talking about inserting genes where they don’t belong in order to make plants do things they should never be able to do.

I’m ethically opposed to any company owning a gene panel—human genes or plant genes. I think it’s wrong. What happens is you get these practices where pollen that you can’t control floated into this field over here and so now we get to charge you, the farmer, a licensing fee because your crops contain our genes. Now we can fine you or put you out of business if you don’t pay us. I think it’s a modern form of piracy. And, for me, if you can own any gene, eventually you’re going to be able to own genes such as animal or human genes. I don’t believe in owning that kind of intellectual property.

There’s another side of me, being a cancer survivor and a general health foodie, that’s uncomfortable with the idea that you’re modifying genes so that you can bomb stuff with chemicals. Chemicals, like some weed killers on the market, kill plants. To make a plant [through genetic modification] able to survive and absorb that chemical … it’s scary to me. However I’m a firm believer in scientific study. Show me the studies before you show me the scare tactics. Let’s let science tell us what these practices will do, and let’s make informed decisions. Until we have proof one way or another, for our company, we choose to err on the side of caution.

There seems to be a lot of ongoing research on topics related to celiac disease and gluten intolerance. How do you stay informed of changes and new developments?

I have a close working relationship with many organizations and independent researchers. I look at the source material they cite—the scientific studies in medical journals. I might see a summary published by GIG or CSA (Celiac Sprue Association) or Gluten Free Works, and I’ll go from there to the journal article.

I just really like to read, and I love research. So you give me an argument, and I’m going to research the pros and the cons. I’m going to go to the source materials. I’m going to dig all the way down. I’m that girl who never got a date in high school because she was spending all her time in the library with her nose in a book.

How much of the work you do at Better Batter involves helping people?

Customer service is huge for us. We want you to get better, and we’re not going to abandon you. For the most part, I do the executive work, but I still deal with the special cases that come in. I deal with all the heartbreaks and the highs and the lows, and the staff handles everyone in between.

Regarding customers you have helped over the years, are there any special cases that stand out?

There was a woman in California. She had lost her job as a banker and went from really high income to nothing. She had kids to support. She had been out of work for ten months and couldn’t find a job. She was on the edge of homelessness. She had three people to feed—all celiacs. There’s no way she’s affording anything. She called us at the end of her rope, mentally. We were able to help her. It was a big one for me.

There is a man who we still support, also at the end of his rope. He has severe limitations (he is mentally 10 at 30+ years of age) but is a wonderful member of the special needs community. He has this amazing personality to just gather people to him. He reminds us of why we do what we do and has given more to us in terms of staying true to our mission than he has ever taken from us in terms of products. I see him as more of a blessing to us than we are to him.

Can you talk about any times you felt you would not be able to help someone who came to you through your business?

There are what I call sad cases and mad cases. Sad cases are people whose immune systems are so shot, they’re not going to heal quickly enough just by using our products as part of a gluten-free protocol. Their secondary conditions caused by the malnutrition or caused by the inflammation are so bad that the diet is not enough to heal them. But we do what we can do to suggest they seek doctors who can treat their secondary conditions and nutritionists to prescribe them nutritional supplementation and that sort of thing. There’s some hope.

Mad cases are people who are, frankly, a little ‘coo coo for coco puffs.’ Their physical complaints are really not physical in nature, and we find we can’t do much to make their neurosis go away because it’s not the diet, or our product, that they need. When we realize this, we have to let them go quietly into the night and hope they find what they are looking for, even if we’re not it. There aren’t many like this, but there are a few.

What do you tell people who are newly diagnosed with medical conditions requiring the gluten-free diet?

The first thing you need to learn about is all the hidden sources of gluten—your cross contamination, your house, your cleaning supplies, etc.—because you can change your diet and you can still stay sick. You need to take it seriously and do 100 percent compliance. Find a good website, find a good resource, or find us and we will help you do that.

The second thing is that you need to learn how to quickly, cleanly, and kindly educate your family, your friends, your associates, your neighbors, and the people who are peripheral to your life so that you can make the changes you need to make in your life without a degree of disruption.

And then third, you need to develop what I call a ‘hand up, hand down’ philosophy. This is how my husband and I live our lives. You should have a hand down ready to pull someone up to the higher level, and you should have a hand up ready to be pulled up to the next level by someone who is ahead of you in their journey. And what I say is, you find somebody who is ahead of you, and if they are willing to give you a hand up, you learn everything you can learn. You learn to read the studies. You learn to find the resources. Then you become an advocate, and then you owe it to the world to turn around to the next person who just got diagnosed and teach them; you extend a hand down. So if I spend time with you, you have to promise me that you are going to spend time with someone else. And those are the three things I tell people.

What are your thoughts on the recent trend of people going on the gluten-free diet to lose weight?

With most fad diets, the real component you’re seeing is people eliminating something that they love. Really, it’s calorie deprivation. I think people who are successfully losing weight on the gluten-free diet but don’t have undiagnosed gluten sensitivity are doing so because, while they’re eating meat, beans, vegetables, fruit—and you’re not going to gain weight on high fiber, fresh foods—they’re cutting out breads, cakes, cookies—the high sugar stuff that tends to be calorific. Especially those going on a raw diet or going on a vegan diet or a paleo diet—there’s a lot of food group cutting going on.

When I see people who go on a gluten-free diet to lose weight and they’re gaining weight, it’s that they’re eating—not putting myself down, but the Better Batter cake mix is not a low calorie or a low carb, ‘health food’ cake mix. It’s just a beautiful cake mix that happens to be gluten free. That also happens to be sugary, especially with gluten-free frosting slathered on. You eat food like that as your gluten-free diet, you’re going to gain weight!

Will we see a decrease in gluten-free products, celiac disease awareness, diagnoses, and research when the gluten-free diet loses its fad status?

Five years ago I would mention celiac disease and people would just blank on me. Now I mention it and people are like, ‘Oh my cousin has that, and have you tried xyz brand of bread?’ The gluten-free diet has raised awareness of celiac disease. It’s been on the news lately. People have talked about celiac disease and gluten intolerance and the difference between them in fictional television shows. And once you get public awareness, there’s a push/pull. People ask their doctors, and doctors start wondering why so many people are asking about it. So they do more to learn about it.

Right now, the number of people who have celiac disease is estimated to be higher than the number of people who have actually been diagnosed (1:133). The ratio of the population will continue to compress in the next few years while it’s still trendy, and we’ll start to see the rates of diagnosis increase.

Think of all the products on the market for heart disease. It comes down to really big numbers for the food industry. You have numbers like that, and you have a viable market that isn’t going to evaporate. So you have all these products for heart disease, and people buy them. Unlike heart disease, with celiac, there’s not a chance of being able to ‘get off’ diet. These are people who have no choice but to eat this diet. The market is here to stay. I think we’re going to see the medical research increase because it has nothing to do with trendiness. It’s like asking if you think diabetes is a fad. The products will be here. The community will be here. I have confidence that the research will continue.

Next: Naomi Poe & Better Batter Part 4: Thoughts on Business from a “Person in Business”

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