Beyond Plant-Based: The Racial History and Future

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mr okra black plant-based food journey foods

What is the opportunity of okra? 

That’s a rhetorical question. What is clear, however, are the plant-based roots of West Africa are inextricably linked to the vision of the plant-based America we are funding by the billions today.

When I started my journey in food, I was given the opportunity to work with my mentor Rick Kittles in a genetics lab at University of Chicago. I was particularly drawn to nutrigenomics – or the history and study of food and genetics. What I always found interesting is the history of plant-based diets in African communities, namely the historical communities of West Africa that now, genetically make up about 30 percent of the Americas.

Our plant-based history and future needs to think beyond burgers. Our lack of acknowledgment of our roots in food is killing all of us, and killing black people faster.

This is a call for us plant-based technologists, fans, and leaders to think beyond plant-based nuggets. 

We are disconnected from our ancestral and genetic foodways more than ever before. Not only does this cause a mental and spiritual disconnect, but it wreaks havoc on our bodies.

As I continue to think about the lack of integration of heritage, genomics and nutrition research in our food value chain, I think it is a good time to dive into the history and study of what exists today. Nutritional genomics – also known as nutrigenomics – is a science studying the relationship between human genome, nutrition and health. People in the field work toward developing an understanding of how the whole body responds to a food via systems biology, as well as single gene/single food compound relationships.

Nutrigenomics was first expressed in 2001. Genomics in general and nutrigenomics, in particular, look at your genetic map and try to explain your tendencies to react to your environment in your own unique way.

But what is most alarming is how our scientific and CPG food leadership and culture has abandoned the prioritization of our historical foodways with our baseline understandings of how it affects our Chronic health and costs us trillions.

I dove into some readings to really highlight just how important culture, genetics, and food can be. Especially for Black Americans.

“Today’s American food culture is a contested landscape in search of values, new direction, and its own indigenous sense of rightness and self-worth. It’s a culture looking toward ecology, the regional flow of seasons, and opportunities for new ways to invigorate and color the American palate. Our new foodies are concerned with health, sustainability, environmental integrity, social justice, and the push-pull between global and local economies. Our food world is a charged scene of culinary inquiry continually in search of ancestors, historic precedent, and novel ways to explore tradition while surging forward. The chefs and culinarians of twenty-first-century America have become hungry for an origin story all our own.”

– Michael W. Twitty, author of “The Cooking Gene”

We can look at the storied Gullah-Geechee culture of South Carolina in the throws of the cotton belt or also known as the Atlantic fruit and vegetable belt to see just how important these practices of tradition and “heritage” eating have been on our overall health:

“The National Parks Service revealed the truth behind many of the remedies and nostrums that were mentioned in Gullah lore or were often cited by Gullah Non-practitioners as being questionable. “A surprising number of plants, especially fruits, yielded products used to treat disease,” it reported “Fig, peach, pomegranate, persimmon, along with basil, and pumpkin, found their way into the pharmacological lore of the Sea islands. No line can be drawn between folk medicine and scientific medicine of the time.” Comparative studies revealed that many species of plants common to Gullah application were independently in the US Pharmacopeia or National Formulary, or both, from as far back as 1820 to the present century.” 

– A snippet from the 2008 Wilbur Cross book Gullah Culture in America.

Today, Blacks in the United States (U.S.) experience among the highest reported rate of hypertension (44%) worldwide. 

In comparison, Nigeria has an age-adjusted hypertension prevalence of 13.5%, and Jamaica of 28.6%. Compared to their White counterparts, Blacks in the U.S. are 40% more likely to be diagnosed with hypertension and 30% more likely to die from heart disease.

A major limitation of this evidence is the lack of consideration of the heterogeneity within the U.S. Black population, for example based on immigration trends over the past 50 years. While some Blacks have been in the U.S. for many generations, others are long-standing or recent immigrants of African descent from places such as Africa and the Caribbean. 

This is the same with Native American and hunter-gatherer gene and health hypotheses and many immigrant populations that experience explosions of chronic disease compared to their parents. 

“Food, racism, power, and justice are linked. What I’m trying to do is dismantle culinary nutritional imperialism and gastronomic white supremacy with one cup of zobo made from hibiscus, one bowl of millet salad with groundnuts and dark green vegetables, and one piece of injera at a time. The next wave of human rights abuse is in the form of nutrition injustice.”

– Michael W. Twitty

Nutritional roots are key. Let’s look at it from a Dairy Case Study:

According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 65 percent of all humans are cow milk intolerant. This urgent public health crisis impacts an estimated 30-50 million Americans and has been linked to serious health hazards including cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases. 

Black Americans, many Americans have been lead down a culinary imperialist black hole with food and perhaps milk is our biggest culprit. As JP put it best:

International Food Information Council Foundation reported that more than half of Americans feel figuring out their income taxes is easier than knowing what they should and shouldn’t eat to be healthier.

What can we do to change the future of plant-based and the inclusion of nutritional roots?

  • Collaborations: We need more scientists that are focused on chronic disease and genetics working at food companies.
  • A seat at the table: Our food teams, our researchers and decision-makers, need to look like America. This is not just an inclusivity call to our tech companies but to all of corporate America.
  • Data, data, data and Journey Foods: The solutions at my company give management teams significantly faster data to make better strategic decisions and increase the ease of monitoring products for the 3 trillion dollar packaged foods market. We will continue to write, research, and lead the call as a mission-driven data startup.
  • What new systems can you think of? Please share.