Nikki Putnam: Is food the new medicine?

  • Are we headed toward Food Rx?
The following is an edited transcript of Tom Martin’s interview with Nikki Putnam, registered dietitian and nutritionist and nutrition solutions specialist at Alltech.
To listen to Nikki's interview, click below:
Tom:                    As a registered dietitian/nutritionist and a nutrition solutions specialist at Alltech, Nikki Putnam helps farmers and producers apply the lens of human nutrition to agricultural practices for the improved nutrition of plants, animals and consumers. We thank you for joining us, Nikki.
Nikki:                   Thanks for having me.
Tom:                    So, what role do you play in the chain of events that happen from farm to table?
Nikki:                   I have a really interesting role within Alltech. I actually came from a larger supermarket chain based out of the Midwest. And what I was doing there was acting as a health and wellness spokesperson, helping consumers to understand a bit more about what was in their food, where their food was coming from and what types of food they should be purchasing for prevention of chronic disease or specific diets like food allergies.
                    So, what I’m doing is bringing that to Alltech now and helping our producers explain to consumers, explain to retailers what they’re doing on-farm and how they’re using feeds to improve the nutrition of their animals to then improve the nutrition of that food product they’re bringing to the consumer and to the retailer.
Tom:                    I think we all watch trends in our respective fields. How about you? What noteworthy trends are you keeping an eye on?
Nikki:                   A few things that I think have been really popular as of late is what I like to call the “free-from” diets — gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free.
                    Also, paying more attention — consumers are paying more attention to food sensitivities. Are they reacting to certain types of foods? Is it an actual allergy? Is it an intolerance? Or is it maybe just more of a preference?
Tom:                    What about consumer perceptions? Let’s start with “free-from.” Is it recognized on the consumer end, and are sales of “free-from” items on the rise?
Nikki:                   I think a lot of consumers are starting to look for these types of products. They’ve been out for quite some time. I mentioned gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free were available for people who had legitimate allergies to these products. Now, more consumers are looking for these products on supermarket shelves, and, yes, I think that specialty category is continuing to grow. We’re seeing more of that in the supermarkets, and more consumers are looking for it just to feel better. Maybe they don’t have an allergy, but they are looking for new things to help them feel better and improve their well-being.
Tom:                    And what about paying attention to the number of ingredients? Does that seem to have an impact on the consumer end?
Nikki:                   I think those two things tie in together very well. A lot of consumers are perceiving these free-from products as healthier, mainly because they contain fewer ingredients. Many of those products that are included in that specialty format or specialty aisle in the supermarket have fewer ingredients than those that may have included the gluten, the soy, the dairy, etc. 
Tom:                    Would you consider these diets something of a disruptor?
Nikki:                   Absolutely. I think it’s changing the food industry. I think it’s changing the way that producers of food, food companies, the big food industry and retailers are starting to talk to consumers, the way that they’re marketing the products. They’re also changing a lot of product lines to be able to reach these consumers looking for specialty products.
Tom:                    Anything coming along that might disrupt the disruptor?
Nikki:                   Yes, I think so. I think right now the consumers are considered the disruptor, if you will. They’re the ones demanding these different types of food products and asking for things that producers and retailers aren’t offering yet, but we’re seeing producers and retailers really catch up. They’re the ones trying to get ahead of the curve now. We’re seeing a lot of them going out and taking new leaps and forays into different types of products and specialty goods. So, they might be the next disruptor.
Tom:                    So, the potential is definitely there. What are some good ways to get involved?
Nikki:                   A good way to get involved from the producer side is really listening to the consumer. I think this has been something we’ve talked about time and time again over the years at many different events and meetings. I’ve spoken with producers about getting involved or listening to the consumer. What do they want from us? They are out there telling us specifically what they want to buy on supermarket shelves. Whether or not you can meet that exact need that they’re asking for, listen to what’s behind that exact demand. Are they asking for less processed products? Are they asking for more sustainable products? Are they asking for functional foods, maybe added selenium or DHA? They’re telling us what they want.
Tom:                    Are food allergies on the rise? You mentioned sensitivities a few minutes ago, but are we becoming increasingly food sensitive? And if we are, what’s going on?
Nikki:                   I’m not sure that we’re becoming increasingly food sensitive. I think our awareness of food sensitivities, intolerances and allergies is growing. Only about 4 to 6 percent of the population has an actual food allergy. A larger number has intolerances and an even larger number has what we call a “food sensitivity.” So, this is something that an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the population is dealing with. It might be even coming from seemingly healthy foods like whole wheat toast or broccoli.
Tom:                                   Is it often surprising to find out that a rash or some sort of physical response that you might have attributed to any number of other things turns out to be a response to food?
Nikki:                   Yes. I think it’s often very surprising to consumers and patients alike when they find out that something they thought was very healthy like a piece of salmon or an apple is actually causing a negative reaction in their body. Everyone’s bodies are different. So, it’s very difficult for us to give a blanket “these foods are healthy” statement when we don’t know exactly how that person’s body is reacting.
Tom:                    We’ve heard throughout our lives that “we are what we eat.” What’s that implying for human health and for the way the food industry should respond?
Nikki:                   I think we’re going to see some big changes in human health. We’ve been hearing for years about eating for prevention of chronic disease and improving our health and well-being through food. I think we’re going to see this increase even more as we find out more about what foods are specifically good for each individual person. I think we might see some diets evolve into more specific programmed nutrition for each person rather than, like I mentioned before, these blanket healthy food diets.
Tom:                    Would it be a stretch to call food the new medicine?
Nikki:                   Absolutely not. I think food is definitely something we can use for preventative care. You know, Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine.” That’s becoming truer day in and day out.
Tom:                    What are some autoimmune diseases that respond well to nutritional solutions?
Nikki:                   A couple of the autoimmune diseases that we’re finding more of, not necessarily because there are increased incidents, but because, again, our awareness of these diseases is increasing — celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome are two autoimmune diseases or conditions that are greatly affected by nutrition.
Tom:                    When you think about it, how do free-from diets and attention to food sensitivities, in the end, affect the average consumer’s dinner table?
Nikki:                   I think we’re going to see more changes on the dinner table. We’re seeing more foods that have less processing. People are going back to freshness again. They’re looking for less packaged foods. Or, if they’re eating packaged foods, they’re eating them with the lowest number of ingredients they can find.
Tom:                    Nikki, what about your work do you like the most? What’s the most fun?
Nikki:                   The most fun I have with my job is meeting the farmers and producers. I’m an Iowa girl. I grew up in Iowa. I’m living in Texas now. I’ve always been interested in human nutrition, but I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for agriculture. The best part about my job at Alltech is I get to marry those two things together.
Tom:                    Nikki Putnam is a registered dietitian/nutritionist and a nutrition solution specialist at Alltech. Thank you for being with us.
Nikki:                   Thanks so much.
Nikki Putnam spoke at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference (ONE17). To hear more talks from the conference, sign up for the Alltech Idea Lab. For access, click on the button below.
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