Why Does a Mother Start A Potato Chip Company?
My husband and I are often asked how it is that we came to be in the snack food business. It is, after all, an odd business for a mom and pop start-up given that it’s dominated by major global brands. It’s not out of any misplaced confidence that we felt we could possibly compete with the big snack food manufacturers; rather, it is a very personal reason with a complex backstory.
Our first child, Jackson, was born in May 2001 as beautiful and healthy as can be. As the days and nights passed, my husband, Jackson and I got into a wonderful groove with sleeping, eating, and working. Summer’s long walks with Jackson and our dog Scout gave way to fall, winter, and spring walks as we all watched the seasons change. Jackson’s first birthday was celebrated with birthday cake, pictures, and friends; over the next several months Jackson took his first steps and spoke his first words. I was also pregnant with our second child, Ella, who arrived in December 2002. We had created a wonderful family routine.
Starting in late fall 2002, ever so subtly, Jackson’s legs started getting weak; he started to prefer crawling to walking; his weight gains started to slow; and he started getting fussy with stomach pains and unusual bowel movements. Our pediatrician dismissed our initial concerns and when Jackson’s symptoms started getting worse over the next several months – more weight loss, difficulty standing, greater stomach discomfort – we sought out other opinions. None were able to point to a reason for these changes.
Over the next 18 months, Jackson’s condition became steadily and inexorably worse. We watched helplessly as Jackson’s weight started to drop, his gross and fine motor skills became more and more diminished, and his digestive symptoms became debilitating. Between his second and third birthday, he hardly slept for more than a few hours at a stretch; his muscle spasticity became so profound that he could not speak, feed himself or sit upright. As he turned three years old, he started to have significant difficulty swallowing food on his own.
Over that time, we saw specialists in nearly every field of pediatrics across the country: metabolics, genetics, gastroenterology, immunology, infectious disease, neurology, and rheumatology. Jackson had spinal taps, CT scans, x-rays, electroencephalograms, and MRIs; he had his blood, urine, stool, and spinal fluid analyzed and then re-analyzed. We exhausted every medical resource in Colorado and traveled to or consulted with specialists from Children’s Hospital Boston, Johns Hopkins, The Mayo Clinic, Children’s Hospital Philadelphia, Columbia University Medical Center, Baylor University Medical Center, Children’s Hospital UCLA and with researchers in Manchester, UK and Lyon, France. We traveled from Palo Alto, California, to Boston, Massachusetts, and many points in between to meet with any doctor or researcher that would agree to look at Jackson’s medical file. We explored Chinese medicine and homeopathy, functional medicine and herbal medicine, Reiki and Cranial-Sacral Therapy. We read every book we could on the most esoteric diseases; we subscribed to online medical journals and searched symptoms and keywords from articles and contacted their authors.
Despite these efforts, there were no leads, no insights, and no diagnosis. Inevitably, each meeting with a specialist, expert, or researcher would end with them apologizing, saying ‘good luck,’ and encouraging us to keep looking. So we did.
Although we had no idea what was causing Jackson’s spasticity, rigidity, and muscle weakness, we felt like we should be able to help his digestive discomfort, which had become a source of profound suffering for him. Jackson’s gastroenterologist prescribed every type of medical food available; we tried elimination diets and supplements of all stripes. We had always eaten organic food but that wasn’t something that mattered to Jackson’s condition either. Nothing seemed to help. He couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t eat, everything he ate caused him to writhe and whine endlessly, and he was losing weight fast.
Conditions went from bad to worse. Jackson suffered a severe bout of pancreatitis and his GI doctor suggested he be hospitalized for several days and put on an IV drip to allow his pancreas to heal and calm down. After two days in the hospital, Jackson’s pancreatitis got worse – something his gastroenterologist had never seen before. Instead of him gaining weight on the IV drip as we thought, Jackson lost yet more weight and did so more rapidly than when he was home. On our third day in the hospital, Jackson weighed less than 17 pounds. He was three and a half years old. Distraught and realizing that Jackson wasn’t being helped by the IV solution he was being fed, we asked his doctor to release him so we could take him home. Jackson’s doctor was a kind and thoughtful man and realized that what they were doing was making things worse. We had no idea how we might cope with his pancreatitis or what his radical weight loss meant, but we knew staying in the hospital and being fed by IV was making things worse. We all agreed that we would check-in daily with his doctor and have his blood tested every other day to keep tabs on Jackson’s pancreatitis. His doctor gave us some morphine and told us he hoped Jackson’s transition went smoothly. Odds were not good that he would make it another two weeks.
Back home on our kitchen bookshelf was a cookbook that my husband purchased a few months earlier that we had previously only skimmed. It was entitled “Nourishing Traditions,” written by Sally Fallon, and published with the help of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nutrition education non-profit. Their philosophy seemed simple: eat nutrient-dense foods as close to their original state (that is, unprocessed) as possible; eat fermented foods that are more easily bio-absorbed; eat ‘good’ fats.
In looking through the book in greater detail, we read a section on ‘feeding babies’ which contained a recipe for a meat-based formula for babies. It consists of homemade beef broth, beef liver, lactose, and a spectrum of healthy fats in the form of cod liver oil, coconut oil, unrefined cold-pressed sunflower oil and extra virgin cold pressed olive oil, all blended together. We had tried far more esoteric diets for Jackson so one that was so heavily laden with fat and protein didn’t seem like much of a stretch for us. And besides, Jackson was desperate for relief. With Jackson weighing 17 pounds at 3 ½ years old, the term ‘nutrient dense’ seemed like an idea worth trying. We had exhausted every other possible combination of foods, both medical and over-the-counter.
Within a week of being on Sally Fallon’s meat-based formula exclusively, Jackson was sleeping better, crying much less, and his pancreatitis started to recede. We started to believe this might help. Within two weeks, he slept through the night on occasion – for the first time in at least two years – and his weight started to stabilize. Within a month, he actually put on a small amount of weight and his pancreatitis was all but gone. We had been fully converted to the high (good) fat diet. His condition stabilized more and more as the weeks and months went by.
We weren’t looking for a cure to our son’s undiagnosed disease – we were simply trying to make his quality of life much better. And we were able to do so by changing – radically – his diet. In fact, food was the only thing that was ever able to intermediate in any way in his disease process: good fats, grass-fed meats, fresh and fermented vegetables – these were the things that gave us hope that we could somehow change the terrible trajectory that Jackson’s life had taken. We let out a breath that we’d been holding in for nearly three years.
Jackson is now 14 years old, confined to a wheelchair and still unable to speak, eat or sit by himself. And though his disability still presents many challenges, he is happy, sleeping though the night and doing everything a wheelchair-bound boy of 14 does with two younger sisters and a younger brother. For the past 10 years, we have stabilized his disease process exclusively through a nutrient-rich diet of healthy fats and proteins. That feels to us like the miracle it is.
Once Jackson started to respond so well to this diet, we started asking ourselves why. My husband graduated college with a degree in chemical engineering, so he started studying the chemistry of lipids and their biological importance: how they react in and with the human body. We soon realized that almost everything we had believed about fats was quite wrong. We realized that traditional, healthy fats that had been consumed for centuries (like cod liver oil, tallow, lard, coconut oil, and unpasteurized butter from grass-fed cows) were a source of essential nutrition. And that man-made vegetable oils are the product of an industrial manufacturing process that was invented 100 years ago were a source of real nutritional aggravation.
As we embraced this healthy fat diet over the last decade, we came to incorporate coconut oil, raw pastured butter, and lard in more of our meals. And as our family grew to four children, we started experimenting more with making everything they ate ‘fat friendly’. Perhaps, inevitably, we experimented with frying our own potato chips in coconut oil. Like many families, we had never had a ‘proper’ potato chip – one fried in traditional cooking oil like lard, palm, or coconut oil. So we gave it a try one weekend.
And we couldn’t believe the difference in flavor. Our coconut-oil chips tasted like an actual potato — rich, deep, aromatic. The combination of the light, almost sweet coconut oil, the earthy potato, and the dash of sea salt made for a wonderful combination of savory, salty, and crunchy. We all instantly found a new favorite recipe.
Naturally, we started making loads of them: for our kids’ lunches, for picnics, for holidays, for barbecues, for hikes, for skiing, for dinner. Every chance we had, we would make some chips, and they became a great way to get coconut oil into our diets. We realized that if a healthy fat like coconut oil could work wonders for Jackson then certainly it could be beneficial for our other kids too. Over the past decade friends, family, and neighbors started to eat our chips at picnics, dinner parties, and holidays. They all remarked on how fresh and tasty they were – how they tasted like a real potato, and many said “You should sell these!”
Initially, we scoffed at the idea of selling them. We were already busy with my husband's job and travel responsibilities and me staying home with our four kids. But over time, enough people kept saying that we should sell them that we actually gave it some thought. Making our own potato chips at home was a time-consuming and labor-intensive process: how could we possibly make enough to sell? How would we compete when the global brands who dominate the business have billions of dollars in advertising budgets? To be honest, we often wondered if there were families out there like ours who understood the difference between a healthy traditional fat and the industrially manufactured vegetable oils. We only came to appreciate that through Jackson’s disease. Surely the total number of people who wanted chips fried in an oil other than canola, sunflower, safflower, corn, cottonseed, or soy oil was minuscule, right?
As we pondered whether or not to sell our potato chips, our minds raced with the difficulties of doing so: the competition, the logistics, the regulatory barriers, the distribution and supply chain complexities, the costs both in time and treasure. The fact that neither of us had any experience whatsoever in the food industry. Start-ups are notoriously difficult even in the best of times: Jackson’s Honest Chips would be even more difficult.
So what really made us decide to start selling potato chips fried in a healthy fat? A debt of gratitude.
I believe that healthy fats saved Jackson’s life by altering the course of his disease for the better and mitigating the most extreme of his symptoms. Our debt of gratitude to Sally Fallon, the Weston A. Price Foundation, as well as the Paleo diet movement can never be repaid. But we can do something. And that something is to promote the use of healthy fats in a food that 85% of all Americans eat at least once every three weeks. As the nation’s most popular snack food, potato chips are a great vehicle to change the world one lipid at a time. We cannot possibly know if providing potato chips and tortilla chips fried in coconut oil will have any real impact on the snack food industry or on any specific family or child. Perhaps potato chips are the Trojan horse in a campaign for re-introducing real fats into the American diet.
It was only after we stopped thinking about selling potato chips as a business that we came to an important appreciation. Jackson’s Honest isn’t a business, it’s a movement: a movement to re-introduce healthy fats into the food chain.
If there is even the smallest chance that the re-introduction of coconut oil into the snack food industry could – through education about fats via our labels, our Facebook page, or our website – alter the course of some other family’s life then we owe it to ourselves, to them, and to Jackson to give it a try. Who knows what the ripple effects of this process might be; if it spurs other companies to offer other products using healthy fats, so much the better. To us, Jackson’s Honest is not so much a business as a payback; it is our debt of gratitude.
As for Jackson, well, in 2014 he was accepted into the Undiagnosed Disease Program (UDP) at the National Institute of Health (NIH). The UDP tackles the hardest-to-diagnose disorders, relying on NIH specialists in endocrinology, immunology, oncology, dermatology, dentistry, cardiology, genetics, and other areas to come up with insights about each case. And in 2015 we learned from the NIH that Jackson has an extraordinarily rare variant of an already-rare disease called Aicardi–Goutières syndrome (AGS). It is a neurodevelopmental disorder that presents with a chronic inflammatory condition in parts of the brain.
Once we received this diagnosis, and in speaking with the researchers at the NIH, we came to realize why Jackson’s high (good) fat diet intermediated in such a profound way in the course of his genetic disease. The details are complex, but the basic idea is that a high fat (ketogenic) diet full of the medium chain triglycerides and saturated fats found in coconut oil, cod liver oil, and lard are by definition a low-inflammatory diet: by lowering the overall consumption of carbohydrates and replacing those with lauric acids in coconut oil, we are disrupting the inflammatory process of insulin and leptin production/use in the body.
This was such a profound event for us: after a decade of searching, learning that Jackson was one of eight known cases in the world with this variant of AGS and that we were able to intermediate in some significant way in the course of his genetic disease with the use of certain fats in his diet. When we got off the phone with the NIH, we immediately set a goal of establishing a non-profit entity to help both fund research into this incredibly rare disease and to support nutritional education initiatives for all manner of childhood disorders. If knowledge about fats could help another family like it has helped ours, then we can and should do everything possible to spread that message and share that mission. You will find that mission on each of our bags of potato and tortilla chips.
Thank you for your interest in our story, in our chips, and in the healthy fat ‘movement,’ We have found great encouragement in the many orders and well wishes we have received from all of our many fans around the US and the world.
A Mission For Real Fats
Before we started on this journey, we were flabbergasted by the breadth of snack foods that were fried in some combination of highly processed polyunsaturated vegetable oils. But we admit to starting Jackson's Honest out of a good bit of idealism too. The snack food industry is a behemoth: almost $10 billion worth of potato chips are sold in the US annually, another $6 billion in tortilla chips. Since its invention in 1853, the potato chip has become a staple of the American diet, and it has ranked as the country’s number one snack food for more than 50 years.
The potato chip industry abandoned highly saturated tropical oils in favor of inexpensive polyunsaturated vegetable oils many decades ago. The reasons behind this are varied and complex. Economics, political influence, faulty nutritional science: all played an important role. But years of new evidence based on balanced nutritional science are implicating polyunsaturated vegetable oils as health antagonists when they are heated, pressed under high pressure, and oxidized by the modern, chemical-intensive vegetable oil manufacturing process. The most infamous of all the polyunsaturated oils – ‘trans’ fats – being one of the derivatives of the vegetable oil manufacturing process.
As you might imagine, lipid chemistry – the study of fats – is a highly complex science. But researchers and authors like Dr. Mary Enig, Gary Taubes, Dr. Bruce Fife and nearly the entire Paleo and Weston A. Price communities have come to the conclusion that healthy, traditional fats like lard, tallow, and coconut oil are not at all the demons they are made out to be, that they constitute an important and, in certain respects, essential component of a healthy diet. And, further, that the overconsumption of processed polyunsaturated vegetable oils – particularly ‘omega 6’ fatty acids – might well constitute a misunderstood health risk.
‘Eating is an agricultural act’; these are the words of Wendell Berry. When we first decided to see if we could make and sell coconut oil potato chips, we wanted to make sure that – at every step of the production process – we were doing what was right for the consumer, for the farmers, for the environment, for our suppliers, and ourselves. So we source potatoes and corn from family farmers that we know and trust who use biodynamic, and ultra-clean growing methods on their farms. We purchase the highest grade organic coconut oil from companies that treat the soil and their workers fairly and use traditional coconut oil extraction techniques. We use sea salt as well as Real Salt brand sea salt so consumers can benefit from the many trace minerals found in this type of unprocessed salt.
All of the above is a roundabout way of telling you that we are a company and a mission: our goal is to make clean, simple products with as much of these nutrient-dense fats as we can in a great tasting and convenient form while spreading the word that ancestral fats are a critically important part of a balanced diet.