Thursday, April 7, 2011

Meet Alumnus Jeff Johnson, Kashi's "Surfing Nutritionist at Large"

Alum Jeff Johnson, MS, BS ('97), talks about working his way from grocery clerk, to Bastyr's nutrition program, to becoming a leader at a natural-foods heavyweight (where he's helping bring whole foods to the masses).

Jeff Johnson

Jeff Johnson, MS, BS ('97), discovered his love for natural foods when he was 17. He worked in a health foods store and found that eating better improved his surfing. Now he works with one foot in the corporate world and the other in natural foods, helping the San Diego-based company Kashi design cereal, granola bars, crackers and other minimally processed foods.

He spoke to us about how his nutrition education at Bastyr University helps him design foods that are healthy, tasty and appealing to people new to natural foods.

Is "Surfing Nutritionist at Large" really your job title?

It is.

Really?

Well, my official title is associate director of marketing, but I figured if I put surfing in the title, they have to pay me for it. I'm constantly trying to marry the lifestyle with the job.

How did you get to Kashi?

It's a journey that started in natural foods stores. When I was 17, I was a grocery clerk at Mother's Market & Kitchen in Costa Mesa, California. I would stock shelves and help customers figure out how to find an ingredient or choose a brand. The more I learned about the foods, the more I began to fall in love with the whole-food movement subculture.

I was also surfing competitively at the time and experimenting with eating vegan and other ways of eating. After eating better, I could note a difference in my surfing, and I just felt better. That led me to Bastyr to study nutrition, and then to get a master's in nutrition in Hawaii.

Did you have your eye on Kashi as a place to work?

I knew I wanted to go back into the natural foods industry and work at a good brand. Kashi was much smaller at the time and didn't need a full-time nutritionist. The job they had available was managing consumer affairs. I wasn't too interested in that, but I knew the company was growing and I should get my foot in the door. So I took it, and within a month the job had changed, and I was doing marketing, nutrition and the innovative things I wanted to do. That was 12 years ago.

Jeff Johnson surfing with the sun at his back.So now you invent cereals and granola bars and go surfing? What's your job like?

I lead our corporate social responsibility functions. For example, we launched an organic line of cereals in 2004, and since then we've had a sevenfold increase in the amount of organic ingredients we purchase. Not all of our food is organic, but it's very important to us and our customers. We're working to dramatically increase our amount of organic purchasing again over the next five years. That's a challenge, since we're a fairly sizable company within the natural and organic foods industry. For example, if we were to switch all of our oats to organic oats, we would become the largest purchaser of organic oats in North America. You can't just go buy these things tomorrow. So we work with farmers to make long-term arrangements so they can plan for it. And we pay more for it, which means we have to make sure it’s economically viable so we can continue to support organic agriculture. 

Are you still drawing on your nutrition training now that you're in a leadership role?

Absolutely. I can see very clearly that my food understanding, a lot of which was driven by my experiences at Bastyr, has been crucial in working with research and development. Every day I'm working with the innovation team to make sure we've got the right nutrition targets in place and are hitting them, or re-evaluating when we're not.

The biochemistry in school was important, and so was the culinary work -- but together they are a great combination. If we have grandiose ideas for the amount of nutrition we want to put into a new cereal, and we do a taste test with consumers and it tastes horrible, we're not doing anybody any favors. My culinary classes at Bastyr with Cynthia Lair were some of my most fun, but also really useful in making healthier foods highly enjoyable.

Bastyr's whole-food nutrition philosophy focuses on unprocessed foods, which is different than Kashi's approach. How do whole foods and prepared foods like Kashi's fit together in a healthy diet?

We emphasize whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and ingredients that are the least-processed possible for packaged foods. There's no white sugar, artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or partially hydrogenated oils. So our frozen black bean mango entrée comes on a bed of seven whole grain pilaf, with mango salsa and black beans. It’s not unlike a dish I would have made in Cynthia’s class, except it's frozen.

If you look at the natural foods consumer, everyone's at a different part of their journey. We try to meet people where they're at. For a lot of people, our GOLEAN Crunch! cereal is their first foray into natural foods. They're getting 9 grams of plant protein, 8 grams of fiber and whole grains they wouldn't get from other foods. If they enjoy it and feel better, they may begin to adopt other positive lifestyle changes like exercising more or adding other healthy foods to their diet.

What else would you tell those considering a career in nutrition?

Make an effort to be well-rounded.  When you're at Bastyr, you're deeply immersed in natural health, which is an essential foundation. But I also found it helpful to do my master's at the University of Hawaii, which is a more mainstream nutrition program and that helped me as I came into the business world. For people who are planning to go into the food industry, the more they can understand about business, the better. Any additional training or experience they can get makes them that much more able to enact Bastyr's ideals and bring them to life in a big way.

Watch Jeff talk about his work for the Sundance Channel:

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