Lizanne Falsetto: CEO, Founder and Chairman of betterland foods™, Founder of thinkThin® – Ep. 108

About Lizanne Falsetto:

Lizanne Falsetto is the CEO, Founder, and Chairman of betterland foods™, and the founder of thinkThin. 

Long before she became an entrepreneur, Lizanne Falsetto had a career as a model.

She developed food for herself on the job, and quickly discovered that her peers were interested in what she was making. She went on to create thinkThin, the gluten-free protein bars you’ve seen on the shelves of grocery stores since the 90s. She sold that company a few years ago, and now she’s building game-changing, cow-free dairy alternatives.

Just as importantly, Lizanne’s career has taken a series of unexpected twists and turns that are genuinely inspirational. She’s been decorated with an impressive array of awards and accolades, and she is well-known for her philanthropy. I’m deeply honored to have her here.

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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3:44 – “I still enjoy going to the grocery store and reading labels and understanding what the new technology is bringing to the forefront. I think what we have up against us now, though, is of course, the environmental crisis and awareness around – we treat diabetes, but we have sugar in our products. And so it’s kind of a twist on what do you put first, right? And I think food needs to have a revamp in many, many ways to help people live a longer life.” 

5:00 – “I didn’t like school a lot. I went to a great school, Catholic school, private school. And I loved sport but school to me was boring. And I think I was more of a visual type of learner. And I had the opportunity out of high school to either go play basketball in college or travel and enter into the modeling world. And for me, I think you can be book-smart and you can be travel-smart, right? There’s two different ways of kind of thinking about the way you learn. And I chose the fashion world and I learned a lot about cultures, food, medicinal herbs, spent a lot of time in Japan and a lot of time in China and Hong Kong. And then I spent a lot of time in Europe. And so as I kind of weaved my way through that career for 15 years, I think the source of my excitement was always about the culture and the food. How do people eat? What do they grow? What do they do for homeopathic functional or white coat medicine, pharmaceutical? And I just always had my eye on feeling good about what I ate and put in my body. And when I came back to the States, I was 28 and I thought I’d be a chef. And that’s kind of how I started my first business, was in the kitchen.” 

Creating ThinkThin Bars In The 90s

*6:53 – “I loved to work with food. I love to entertain. I love to cook. I love planning meals. And my grandmother was an extraordinarily good cook. She didn’t just bake well, she cooked well. And that’s very rare because baking is very accurate and to the point, cooking is kind of a little this, a little that. And I was definitely more of a cook but I love two things my grandmother made. She made a brownie that you would die for, and she had a chocolate chip cookie, and she also had a peanut butter cookie, but the chocolate chip cookie and the brownie were the two products that I thought I was going to tear them apart in my kitchen and I was going to try to pull out the sugar and add protein to them. And so I started the process and it took about six months. And during that time I was still modeling to support myself. And I started making these bars that were on a slab sheet like cookies, and I would take them to the modeling gigs. And next thing I knew, everybody was asking every day, ‘Hey, Lizanne, do you have one of those? Do you have one of those?’ And I’m thinking, ‘Okay, wait, is this a business?’ And that’s how I fell into nutrition bars. That was back when PowerBar, Clif Bar and Balance Bar were the only bars on the market. 1993, a long time ago.” 

8:41 – “I’ve never been vegan, never been dairy free. I listen to my body, and I learned that in the fashion world, because you would travel for a month somewhere and come back and you’d have jetlag. And food was the equalizer. It was the one thing that kept me balanced. It kept me awake. It kept my skin looking good. And as a fashion model, your personality and your mood has a lot to do with your physical, because the combination of the two is what the work is that you’re performing. And so I was always very aware that if I ate too much dairy or lactose, it upset me or if I ate gluten. Gluten was the biggest thing for me. I never felt good on gluten. And gluten is glue, right? ThinkThin was probably one of the first products that had gluten free on it when I launched it. But I eat everything and I am very careful about the types of food I combined. And if I feel like eating it, I eat it. And if I don’t, I don’t. But I listen to my body.”

10:42 – “I had 30 years with ThinkThin and I built that business and sold it. And then I kept my eye on the protein world. I really love the commodity world and watching what’s happening with the environment. We know that the farmlands are getting polluted because they have to produce more because we have more mouths to feed, but then we’re hurting the environment, and so the weather causes issues on the food. The protein market is dwindling down to the point where there will not be enough whey protein for people to consume. And protein is the number one ingredient that for me, I love to eat 100 grams or more a day and through COVID, I started doing some research about different types of proteins. And it’s very interesting when you think about companies in the tech world that are able to clone an actual protein and produce it without the animal.” 

“I Couldn’t Believe How Delicious It Was!”

*12:02 – “I started checking out Perfect Day, and Perfect Day is an alternative whey protein that is made through a fermentation process. And they’re able to create a whey protein that tastes even better than whey from an animal, from a cow. And I reached out and started playing a bit with their protein in the kitchen. And I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe how delicious it was, how it frothed, how you could bake with it. And then I started playing a little bit with it in my blender because I like smoothies. And that’s when it kind of hit me that this could be something that could go into the dairy world, that this could replace milk. And as you know, we have almond, we have oat, we have all these options, but nothing tastes and acts and performs like milk.” 

13:14 – “The great thing about Betterland milk is we are better milk, better for you and better for the planet. And it has the eight grams of protein, it has zero cholesterol, it has half the sugar and 50% less carbs, but it tastes and performs like milk. So I think that the alternative space today of almond, oat, gosh now there’s cauliflower, potato, hemp, soy, all of those products are the bridge to where we’re going with our product in the food tech world of protein.” 

14:36 – (Ross) “When you’re staring down the barrel of the prospect of what do I feed my kid whose brain is growing? And that’s something that my wife and I wrestled with a lot because we were completely hardcore vegan for a couple of years, and then we dialed it back. We were struggling a bit to get what we needed just on that diet so we started doing vegetarian. Now we still don’t eat meat of any kind, no cow or beef or any of that but we do sometimes eat cheese on pizza. We do sometimes eat dairy, sometimes we eat eggs, sometimes we eat fish. I’ll just be very honest about all of that. But when you’re thinking about what do I give my kid, it’s a very different discussion because in theory, I’d love to raise her without ever eating an animal product but there are certain realities. You think I really don’t want her to grow up to be somehow mentally deficient or physically deficient or miss certain key things. So we wrestle with this a lot, and in the end, we kind of landed on a hybrid solution where we give her regular milk, but we don’t give her meat or other animal products and she seems to be doing fine.” 

16:00 – “If you look at what Impossible Burger did with meat – the population is growing and we don’t have enough food. You have to build space for people to live so the farmlands gets broken down. You’ve got issues with agriculture and weather. Every day you turn on the news and there’s something there that’s causing a disruption in the soil. And so where are you going to get your food source? And also, I don’t think that we treat our animals well because of the stress that we put them under to be able to produce. There’s just so many reasons why we need to step outside our box and start to think about the future of the planet and our food source. And that’s what we’re doing at Betterland foods. We’re really trying to understand how to deliver the best tasting, the best performing product, that’s great for your health, it’s enjoyable to consume. And we’re thinking about the planet in relationship to what’s happening in the world today.” 

A Future Without Meat 

*17:45 – (Ross) “So much of modern media shows that, like take Blade Runner 2049, these futuristic dystopian movies, they always show that, ‘Oh, the worst part about a dystopian future, aside from cities crumbling and there being eternal winter and everything is gray, but there’s also no more meat. There’s also no more animal products.’ And it’s presented as this horrific, nightmarish scenario. But I’ve never felt that that had to be the case. It can be really positive if something is good and you enjoy it and it gives your body what it needs and it tastes great and does what you expect it to do, then it’s not a lack. It’s not ‘I’m missing this other thing,’ or ‘life would be so much better if I had this other thing.’ It’s just a better version of something that you like. So I’m very personally passionate about anything like that, that gives us what we need, but that pays more attention to the environment and the context in which the product exists.”

19:29 – “I think that there’s a food revolution happening and Betterland Foods really wants to take that on. We’ve got two products: we’ve got the Betterland Milk, which will be launching in October. And we also have a candy product called the Woo Bar, which is we’re going after the old Snickers, Milky Way, Reese’s, and we’re using all plant-based proteins. And if you think about what ThinkThin was in the protein world, this is the candy protein world of what we’re doing with Woo…They haven’t changed their profile for over 65 years. The candy that you’re eating is poison. That’s why it tastes so good, right? That’s why you gain weight. That’s why there’s diabetes and obesity – and shame on them. You look at Mars and General Mills and Nestlé and Hershey’s and they have the opportunity to be able to create food that’s better for you. But they haven’t done it in over 65 years. And so I think you have to have entrepreneurs that want to disrupt the world like we do at Betterland Foods.” 

21:39 – (Ross) “Going back to the nineties when you said there weren’t that many options…It was just very easy to say, ‘Here’s a chicken-something-or-other,’ and ‘here’s a tofu-something-or-other,’ and this one tastes good and this one tastes bad, therefore you have to be an idiot if you want to eat tofu instead of chicken. That was what I thought. And I know millions, maybe billions, of people feel that way. But nowadays with an Impossible burger, you have people who have never had such a food before and they have this image of what a veggie burger or a garden burger is, a holdover from the last few decades, and if you give them an Impossible burger for the very first time, they eat it and they say, ‘Oh my God, it actually tastes good.’ You’ll get a begrudging acceptance. You’ll get a begrudging agreement that, yes, it is at least passable. They’ll never say that they love it more than the meat, but it’s at least getting better. And I think the more that we show via these techniques and technologies that we can get there, the more people are going to not have an issue with the choice in the next 20 years.” 

Consumers Need To Realize That There’s No Other Option. 

*23:06 – “I think consumers need to realize that there’s no other option. You’re not going to have enough ingredients such as a protein in the world to feed all the mouths. And I think about all the hungry people that live around the world, women that can’t even feed their baby because they’re malnutritioned. So they can’t even produce their own milk to be able to do it. We’ve got to change the way we think and we have to look towards the future of the abundance of being able to bring in products that are better for your health and in abundant supply. I mean, it’s kind of what Tesla did, right? Get rid of gasoline and move to electric. It’s what Impossible Burger did with beef. And that’s what Betterland Foods is doing with milk, is we are going to give an option to people to have a whole milk, a low-fat milk, and then we’re doing a half-and-half, which is called Creamy, which is just delicious to bake with. You can whip with it. You can put it in your frother for your coffee at home, and it’ll stay frothed all the way to the bottom of the cup. So you won’t have that, like you had said, the loss of the flat flavor.”  

24:29 – “Oat milk is green. When you pour oat milk out, look at it. It’s green. And it’s not good for the environment and it’s still using planet. And then you look at almonds, and almonds – it’s one gallon of water to one almond. That’s what it takes to grow an almond. So think about our water supply that we’re under. I mean, it’s time to start thinking ahead and being aware that we’re going to run out and it’s not going to be good. And so even if we know we’re going to run out the beautiful part about what we’re doing at Betterland Milk and what some of these incredible tech companies are doing with proteins and fats and supplements, they’re making all kinds of ingredients so that in the next 50–75 years, we’re not running out of ingredients to make products.” 

27:17 – “The protein is made through the fermentation process. So, you know, cheese comes from fermentation. I mean, this is nothing new. This is thousands and thousands of years old, this technique. And people say, ‘Oh, well, you’re making it in a lab,’ it’s ridiculous because fermentation has been around for thousands of years. It’s, again, in your cheese, it’s kombucha, it’s beer. The beer you drink is made through fermentation. And what Perfect Day did is they figured out how to take that process and how to clone a whey protein and make an identical fermentation from it. And that’s why it’s called precision fermentation. It’s because it’s precise to the exact activity that that actual protein can do, and it is as good as protein for your body. It tastes better than a whey protein. It just is lighter and fluffier…And you get the vitamins, you get the taste, you get the absorption, and you don’t have to sacrifice. It’s just a win-win for everybody.” 

30:42 – “I think I was born an entrepreneur and I know people use that title kind of as a, ‘hey, I’m an entrepreneur and I’m going to build a business and sell it in three years.’ Well, that’s not what an entrepreneur does. What an entrepreneur does is they focus on something that they’re passionate about and they drive it all the way. You don’t do it for the money. You do it because you love to wake up and to build something that can make a difference in the world.”

32:59 – “When I first launched, people didn’t even know what protein was. They’d say, ‘Well, how much protein do I need? One gram? Two grams?’ People didn’t even know that protein was a necessity. And this is in the early 1990s. So it took a lot of education and through that process, I think I learned as I made mistakes which we do as entrepreneurs and I surrounded myself with very smart people and if I didn’t know how to do something, I’d bring in a consultant.”

36:20 – “That was before low carb and everything came out and they had put us into the candy section because they didn’t realize how big this nutrition bar category would be. You usually had a 4-foot set when you opened up into a grocery store and they would open up a new category. But now it’s a 28-foot set. It drives billions of dollars a year in revenue for retailers. So it is one of the biggest categories. And they moved us from candy into our own little 4-foot set. And from there we just built the category, new flavors – at one point I think I had 24 or 25 flavors of ThinkThin, and we had a huge block of space on the shelf. And then, of course, competition came. People kept coming in and trying to deliver on an oat-based product or an almond-based and then KIND came from Australia. I remember looking at that branded at Expo West going, ‘Oh, this is really pretty food.’ And it was really small at that time. I think they just sold for $3 billion. Clif Bar just sold for $3.5 billion. So when you think about an industry that can grow, the world is your oyster. That’s all I can say. Don’t hold back.” 

39:14 – “I think as an entrepreneur, you know when you’re two feet in and you know when it’s time to be two feet out. And for me, I knew that I wanted to build the business. I didn’t know I was building a business, by the way, but as I went through it, I loved it. It was stressful. It was hard. I really am a workaholic to a certain point. I’m trying to balance that now. But to work and to know that you love what you do and you’re bringing forth something that can change the way people think about food, it just drives you. You know, you wake up in the morning and you can’t wait to get back to the next conversation or the next push. So I sold ThinkThin because it was the right time, people understood that food with protein was an absolute necessary part of their daily diet. And that’s when I knew it was time to sell the brand.” 

43:22 – (Ross) “It’s very exciting for me and I love staying abreast of these new developments. It’s kind of what I live for. I live for unearthing the people out there who are committed to solving the problems that are facing us all. And I think there’s nothing more noble that somebody can do in general than to put it upon themselves to solve some of the problems that face us all, even if not all of us know that these problems are facing us, even if many of us are blissfully ignorant about the true state of affairs of the world and what’s to come in the next 10, 20, 30 years. It’s comforting to me to know that smart people like you are out there working on this and thinking about this so that it’s not just one giant blind side, 20 years from now, 30 years from now, 75 years from now, whenever a lot of these other structures stop working.”

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