Squirrel Hill resident, cyclist and runner David Levine is on a quest that makes marathoning look easy. Levine, president and CEO of NuGo Nutrition, wants consumers to better understand the treats they eat.
“In most healthy snacks in the United States that call themselves ‘dark chocolate’ there’s a fair amount of deceptive labeling going on,” said Levine.
Unlike milk chocolate, which the Food and Drug Administration maintains must contain at least 10% chocolate liquor; not less than 3.39% milkfat; and at least 12% milk solids, dark chocolate lacks an FDA standard. This generates misunderstanding, explained Levine.
Although many snacks purport to use dark chocolate, some “are not using the real ingredient,” he said. “Instead they are adulterating dark chocolate by taking out the natural cocoa butter and putting in palm oil.”
Apart from a not-so-sweet switcheroo, the use of palm oil raises separate issues.
“Although its negative health impacts are contested, a meta-analysis of increased palm oil consumption in 23 countries found a significant relationship with higher mortality from ischaemic heart disease,” wrote researchers in a 2019 World Health Organization bulletin. “Another systematic review found that palm oil consumption increased blood levels of atherogenic low-density lipoprotein cholesterol.”
There are also environmental concerns, noted Levine, who founded his 20-year-old company with Keith Rohrlick and Steve Smith. Eighty-five percent of palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, where, because of increased global demand, deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, habitats for tigers, rhinos and orangutans are being increasingly depleted.
It’s issues like these that have spurred Levine to preach the value of particular ingredients. Real dark chocolate allows consumers to truly enjoy the chocolate’s flavors, as well as benefit from antioxidants, whereas palm-oil substitutes mask taste and compromise texture, he said.
Chemistry and geopolitics may seem like a lot to chew on, but Levine hopes people understand why they matter to NuGo.
“It’s the basis of why we exist,” he said. “We make a product that is better for the world, better for you and truly tastes better.”
NuGo employs about 25 full-time staff and has “sales and distribution in all 50 states, and in about 18 or 19 countries outside of the U.S.,” said Levine.
Expansion has enabled the company to appeal to consumers with specialized dietary preferences, such as gluten-free, low-sugar, high-protein or plant-based. Of particular pride, he added, is NuGo’s dedication to kosher eaters.
“We committed from day one to making sure that all of our products were kosher,” said Levine.
When a product is certified kosher, “it’s a symbol of quality,” he continued. “Obviously, I understood from the hechsher standpoint what it could provide. I also recognize that others outside the Jewish community recognize that maintaining a kosher symbol was a designation of quality, and I continue to hold that belief. I think it means more.”
NuGo’s newest product, the NuGo Perfect Cookie, was introduced last month and is being marketed as “the only vegan and low-sugar protein cookie.” The pareve cookie is available in four flavors: dark chocolate chip, double dark chocolate, peanut butter and lemon poppy seed.
Levine said the Perfect Cookie should appeal to a wide range of consumers given that it’s not only pareve “and delicious” but it contains less than 2 grams of sugar, has no artificial sweeteners, is made with 10 grams of plant-based protein and only vegan ingredients, and possesses between 5 to 7 net carbs, depending on the flavor.
“It’s got all the bells and whistles,” he said.
Coming up with the Perfect Cookie was simply an act of listening to what consumers desired, Levine continued: “Our mission at NuGo is we always want to maintain the integrity of the ingredients that we’re putting inside, and keep them at the highest level of fidelity possible.”
As much as Levine enjoys placing healthy snacks in people’s hands, he likes helping people in other ways as well. For close to two decades, NuGo has supported the Children’s Alopecia Project, a Pennsylvania based nonprofit that helps children with all forms of alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that often results in partial or total hair loss.
“It’s just a really wonderful organization,” said Levine. “They’re not searching for the cure — that’s being done on a national level by other groups — they’re just making the children stronger and more confident, and explaining to other kids that don’t have alopecia that ‘Hey, these kids are just incredibly strong, wonderful individuals.’”
Levine was introduced to the Children’s Alopecia Project after a friend’s daughter was diagnosed with the disorder. Since then, NuGo has supported the nonprofit in multiple ways, including most recently by purchasing a car so the organization “can travel around the country” raising awareness and bolstering children’s self-esteem, said Levine.
Given the relationships that NuGo has developed with communities and consumers, Levine is proud of the last 20 years.
“We’re very happy with what we’ve done and how we’ve grown, but we certainly have a whole lot more to accomplish,” he said, noting that he has plenty of good advice to rely upon.
“I’ve always been fortunate enough to have around me some very wise and bright and hardworking co-workers. The one thing I’ve learned is that you’ve got to rely on the talent of others to make you better,” he said. “I’m just very excited to be able to continue to do that with all of my team around me. The executive team and everyone in the organization just makes me better every day.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.