Introducing the Inventors
Anti-Cholesterol Chocolate Chip Cookie
words by Eve Jacobs / photograph by John Emerson
t’s not every UMDNJ grad who successfully hunts down unconventional byways for solutions to medical conundrums. And it’s not every UMDNJ grad who invents a highly saleable product, then takes it to market, and launches a manufacturing company to meet the public’s growing demand.
Meet Wendy Miller and Norman Null. Registered dietitians, entrepreneurs and co-owners of Right Direction (RD) Foods, they created the recipe, mixed the ingredients and even clinically tested their “healthy” chocolate chip cookie. It tastes good and has been demonstrated to lower cholesterol 10 percent in four weeks, which is as effective as any prescription drug in lowering blood cholesterol but without the potentially serious side effects. And it’s even made with “gourmet, really high quality chocolate chips,” according to its creators.
This supercookie is right out of Mom’s kitchen — with a few modifications, says Miller who actually did work and rework her tasty cookie recipe. But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves in this career-history. First came school; then came work; then the brilliant idea; and finally the cookie with the amazing credentials.
Miller, who graduated from NYU with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1989, first worked as a freelance writer for educational journals and a wine magazine. Her interest in the science of food was sparked, she says, by her youngest son’s serious food sensitivities. (She has four children, ages 15, 16, 24, and 25). Her need to know more about both the detrimental and health-promoting powers of foods drove her back to school to become a nutritionist. She spent two full years completing undergraduate prerequisites and then two years getting a Master’s in Clinical Nutrition degree from NYU, before entering UMDNJ’s School of Health Related Professions (SHRP). It was in SHRP’s Dietetic Internship Program that she met and became friends with Null.
He came to the program from a very different background but with a similar “bent.” Both knew they were not headed towards hospital careers, a common goal for dietitians, and they share an entrepreneurial spirit.
Null had been a biochemistry major at Rutgers University — until a diagnosis of diabetes in his senior year sent him reeling and caused him to drop out of school. “It consumed my life,” he said, referring to the regimen of diet and exercise that he undertook for several years, trying to avoid taking insulin to regulate his blood sugar. Eventually, diet, excercise and oral medications were not enough and he was re-diagnosed with Type1 diabetes. The evolution of his diabetes led Null to have an epiphany. “I realized that I had to link-up my job and my life.”
When he went back to school in 1999, his goal was to become a diabetes educator at a diabetes center. He graduated from Rutgers with a bachelor’s in nutrition. “Studying nutrition made the biochemistry real and applicable,” he comments.
Both entered the Dietetic Internship Program in 2002. According to Miller, in order to become a registered dietitian (RD), you must go through an accredited internship. “UMDNJ’s program is known to be very science-oriented and very tough,” she says.
The program lived up to its reputation. “It was an incredible internship — the hardest year of my life, so intense that you really can’t do anything else,” she says. Along with rigorous assignments and classroom time, students work full-time in various hospitals, dialysis centers, nursing homes and other healthcare facilities, moving to a different site every few weeks.
“As an undergrad, you’re learning from books,” says Null. “In the internship, you learn on the job and there’s an amazing amount to learn. You have to be well-prepared for each new rotation.” Specialty areas include diabetes, general medicine, surgery, intensive care, pediatrics, community health, maternity, geriatrics and administrative.
The effects of nutrition on children’s health, particularly new findings in the area of developmental disorders, were what most intrigued Miller. Null’s primary interest continued to be diabetes. But, “we both wanted to start businesses,” Miller recalls.
They decided to become business partners. Their first joint venture was to open a nutrition center in Summit, offering counseling for different life stages. What became apparent immediately was how many people are affected by elevated cholesterol. “Docs were sending us their patients before putting them on meds — for help in making lifestyle changes,” says Miller.
As nutritionists, Null and Miller knew that the best method to lower cholesterol is with plant sterols and soluble fiber. “But most people can’t take in enough to actually do the trick,” Miller explains.
As a mother with lots of “kid experience,” she figured that the best way to help patients was to “hide this stuff in foods,” like you would for a child. But teaching patients how to work these ingredients into homemade waffles was not a success. So, recognizing the limitations of rigorous dietary regimens, Miller went searching for a “quick fix.” Experimenting in her home kitchen, she came up with a big chunky chocolate chip cookie that had enough plant sterols and soluble fiber to do the trick. She would bake batches and give them to patients with a “one-a day” prescription.
Meanwhile, she continued fussing with the recipe at home, intent on making the cookie more palatable. She tried more than 10 different kinds of chocolate chips before she found the “right” one.
“It worked,” she says. “People liked the cookies. It was easy. They were glad to eat one every day. And we saw their cholesterol go down.”
There was a point, says Miller, when the business partners needed to move their mini-baking business out of the home-kitchen. “It happened gradually. We spent more and more time on this until we both had to be doing it full-time.”
First they hired a contract bakery to take over production. The problem, says Null, is that this is a “dose specific” product, so there’s no room for variation. Also, the recipe is “touchy,” and the dough dries out quickly. “It’s delicate,” he comments.
Then came what Miller calls “their big commitment”: a five-year lease, 5,000 square feet of space, the purchase of large pieces of equipment, and hiring four full-time employees. The little plant in Kenilworth now turns out 2,000 cookies an hour. Orders can be placed online or by phone. And there is now an oatmeal raisin variety.
Their first two years have been winners. Null points out that their foremost success may be the results of the double-blind, placebo controlled and crossover clinical trial conducted at the University of Connecticut demonstrating that their cookie does, in fact, lower cholesterol 10 percent over a four-week period. The paper was published in The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 136, No 10, October 1, 2006. “Doctors want this kind of clinical proof,” he says.
“A 10 percent reduction translates into a 30 percent lowered risk of heart attack,” he points out. Study participants had moderate total cholesterol — between 200 and 225.
The Star Ledger placed them on the front page of their business section on April 20, 2007. Nutraceuticals World named them one of “The Fab Five: Companies to Watch” in Spring 2006. Null figures they’ve been on the TV news and in print in almost every state. When a blurb offering free cookie samples ran in the July 10th issue of Women’s World, they got 11,000 sample requests in three days. The online traffic was so heavy that it crashed their site. Prevention magazine just covered them in their September issue.
Miller calls the cookies, which are now half the size — so you need two a day — an “easy fix” for a potentially dangerous problem. The chocolate chip variety is 150 calories apiece and the oatmeal raisin 140.
Null points out that their cookie is a good snack for diabetics because it has a low glycemic index. “And consumers with GI problems have found it works for digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s,” he states.
What do the close friends and business partners see in their future? “We would like to get our cookies into as many people’s hands as could benefit from them,” says Miller. “In two years, we hope to be in all major grocery stores and pharmacies in the U.S.”
“Then we want to take it worldwide,” says Null, who is now married with a 3-year-old daughter and an infant son. “But that’s extremely expensive. However, if a larger company takes it over, we want to ensure that the integrity of the product isn’t compromised.”
Both expect their partnership to continue. They also continue to be intrigued by the promise of functional foods and the desire to “make a contribution.” Miller thinks their next focus may be developing products for those affected by food allergies. Null is not predicting. But whatever comes next, the anti-cholesterol chocolate chip cookie, and its cousin, the anti-cholesterol oatmeal raisin cookie, have already made their mark on a world hungry for alternatives to prescription medicines.
To order cookies or for more information, go to the company’s Website at: www.rightdirectioncookies.net