Eating healthy and building a healthy eating business in Colombia – Inspired by Daniel Salazar

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In Medellin it was difficult to find healthy and affordable places to eat out. Your options in Bogota are much more plentiful, but the street food scene is still dominated by deep fried stuff. Add to that the Colombians love for red meat and I might be forgiven for getting the impression that healthy eating in Colombia was near impossible.

It took Daniel Salazar, the CEO of La Superior, one of the top gmo-free soy milk brands of South America, to change my mind.

A Colombian man in the early seventies went through a major crisis. His company went bankrupt and he lost everything he had. He was severely overweight and headed for a health disaster. What made him change course was that he became religious and started to follow the teachings. He became vegan and opened his own vegan restaurant in the city of Cali (one of the first in the country I imagine, we are talking early seventies). He saw how bad nutrition was making people sick and started providing free health consultations.

In the early eighties, an adventurous German woman was touring South America and got very sick on the way. As she couldn’t afford hospital treatment, she went to a natural doctor in Cali, who would consult her free of charge. In order to overcome her life threatening disease, she had to change her diet 180 degrees. But her “I’ll eat what people give me” lifestyle didn’t really allow her to be picky. When the natural doctor offered to house and feed her in exchange for a few hours’ work in his vegetarian restaurant every day, she didn’t hesitate.

The way Daniel’s parents met makes for a good anecdote, but the story of how the company started fascinated me even more.

“My father also had a little store in his restaurant, where he sold natural remedies and vegan stuff, including soy milk. The problem with that milk was it would only last 3 days. So he started to experiment with different ways of making soy milk that would last longer. He made lots of experiments and stayed in the kitchen until 3 am for weeks in a row. My mom thought he was crazy, his sister said he was crazy. When my grandparents came to visit from Germany, he was making powder soy milk but it took him 15 days to make one kg. But he insisted that he would sell soy milk by the ton one day – so even my grandfather thought he was nuts.

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But after a year of incredibly hard work, he brought out a powder soy milk that would last long and wasn’t bitter like all the ones before. He kept selling this in his little store in the restaurant without any kind of label or branding. It wasn’t until one of his regular customers, who happened to own a supermarket chain, offered to distribute his products that he actually created the brand and put a label on the products. My mom was in Germany at the time and when she came back, she was confronted by all the pretty labels on the products that my father paid for using the money my grandparents gave them specifically to buy a car as the family was growing. There was a huge fight about that. Without a car and money to pay for transportation, they had to carry all the products they sold to the supermarket every week. Well, that’s how it all started.”

Daniel kicked off  in the accountancy department of the company with little formal educational background in the field, which only made him work harder and learn faster. Soon, he became the assistant of the sales manager and worked with him for a year. That was enough for him to know enough about the company to take his boss’ place. Still working for minimum wage, he had to prove himself to his parents. He also had to establish his authority, which wasn’t made any easier by the fact that many of the people now working under him saw him play as a kid not too long before.

By the age of 25, he overtook the management of the company entirely. Three years later, after taking the company to the global marketplace, employing close to a hundred people and launching several new products, he is looking for the right person to share his responsibilities with. He wants more time to think about new ventures and also needs to get a second opinion to manage the company.

“Right now, there is no one in the company who would have a different opinion. No one argues with me, whatever I say is the final decision. And I think that’s very unhealthy for a family business.” – He says.

Running the family business and travelling much of the time, it’s not always easy for Daniel to stick with his strict vegetarian diet. He likes to prepare his own meals whenever he can, but sometimes that’s just impossible. Having been a vegetarian all his life, eating meat is not a tempting idea whatsoever, quite the opposite: he doesn’t even like the smell of meat and stays as far away from it as possible. His family doesn’t eat refined sugar so he isn’t accustomed to it, which is probably why he doesn’t have this unstoppable craving for sugar and sweet things most people do. The only real temptation he does give in to every once in a while is Pizza.

“I just love pizza. I think it’s one of the best things in the world. I used to eat pizza without cheese until a few years ago, but then I decided to make this an exception, because real pizza has cheese on it.”

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Daniel, like his father, is a believer of the Seventh Day Adventist faith. He told me the 8 guiding principles he and his family live by:

1. Eat nutritiously (for them this means vegetarianism).

2. Exercise regularly and often to improve your body, mind and spirit.

3. Drink plenty of water.

4. Spend time in sunlight.

5. Practice temperance: use good things moderately; avoid bad things.

6. Breathe in pure air, and do it properly.

7. Rest well, remembering that the best rest follows labour.

8. Trust in divine power as you make choices and seek inner peace.

I don’t know anything else about this religion, but these seem to be pretty reasonable recommendations for anyone to follow.

I was also curious about what Daniel thought of the health awareness of Colombian people. I told him that in my impression healthy eating options were still fairly limited in Bogota, but he gave me quite a different picture.

“The soy milk market is growing 40% in volume every year. People are learning about healthier options and are making smarter choices. If you want to do something in the healthy food industry in Colombia, now is a good time to jump on the boat.”

He continued with explaining the most widespread misconceptions about eating meat and drinking cow milk. People look at these two as their only source of protein and calcium. But according to Daniel, soy is a way better source of both.

“You need to read The China Study. It’s a book based on a 20 year study that examined the relationship between eating animal products and different diseases. As it turns out, the countries with the highest rate of cow milk consumption also have the highest rate of osteoporosis (a decrease in bone mass and density). Because what cow milk does to you is it makes your blood acidic, and the body takes calcium out of the bones to neutralize the acidity. Milk does contain calcium, which is then absorbed by the bones, but this intake and outtake of calcium messes up your bones. Soy milk does the opposite. It alkalizes your body and allows your bones to absorb all the calcium directly.”

I haven’t yet read The China Study. I will admit that I’m a bit afraid of reading it. Not because of what I might find in it, but because whatever I find will be based on conclusive evidence and I’ll have no choice but to believe it all. Until I read another book saying the opposite, but based on just as solid scientific evidence and then I won’t know what to believe.

I’ve recently read a book about how wheat is destroying our health. Not long before I saw a documentary about how eating too much corn is bad for us and how even what we think is chicken is also a different form of corn essentially. Then you have the paleo diet, the atkins diet and vegetarianism or veganism. The one thing all of these have in common is they pick one thing and blame it for all the health problems of humanity.

I’ve never been a big fan of meat. And after meeting Daniel, I’ve been eating more soy based food and even less meat, which I’m pretty sure is a good thing. But I don’t think I’ll ever be fully vegetarian, paleo or anything else. Quite frankly, after reading dozens of books and articles on healthy eating, I think the best piece of nutritional advice I’ve ever been given is what my dad keeps telling me: “Eat a little bit of everything”.

Daniel and his family also found a way to give back to society. Their foundation educates people about healthy living and organic farming just to name a few. Daniel told me about the miraculous healing of a woman, who was given a few months to live by doctors. “The combination of a strict vegan diet and her strong faith has healed the cancer and saved her life” – as he put it.

I also asked Daniel about what he recommends to people who aspire to live a healthy life but sometimes slip back to unhealthy patterns.

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“Settle down. In the countryside. Cities are not made for healthy living. I’m here in Bogota only temporarily and when I get married I’ll be living in the country where I can grow most of the food my family needs myself. The only way to make sure you’re eating healthy is to grow your own food and make your own meals. The second best option is buying organic food. Look at this bunch of tomatoes. It cost $3.50. You can get the same amount of non organic tomatoes in any grocery store for $0.5. It’s true that not everybody can afford organic food today, but the more people buy organic, the more affordable it becomes for everyone.”

I like that idea. By paying a premium price for organic stuff you’re not only doing yourself a favour, but are also casting your vote for a more natural way of farming as opposed to an industrial one.

I’m grateful to Daniel for sharing his story and for all the things he taught me. And I wish him continued success in the business of changing people’s lives to the better.