How We Grow

2020 July/Aug How We Grow

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ALMOND COMMUNITY 11 Lapsley Leaves Impact on Industry for Generations to Come When Karen Lapsley, Ph.D., arrived at the Almond Board of California (ABC) in 1999, there were two published research papers on the benefits of including almonds in your diet. Today, there are 185. When Dr. Lapsley retires at the end of July, she will leave behind a library of literature supporting the healthfulness of her favorite nut. From heart health to reducing wrinkles, the body of evidence supporting the health benefits of almonds is one of the most extensive of any food, thanks to the curiosity and contacts Dr. Lapsley brought to the Almond Board 21 years ago this summer. As former Almond Board CEO Rodger Wasson recalls, "We were at a fork in the road and needed to take a step out in nutrition. Most commodity groups were going down the traditional route of working with Registered Dietitians in their area. I was looking for somebody with the credentials and experience and vision to jump start the program. Karen had contacts all over and was very inquisitive. Her curiosity and contacts were key." "It was the advent of functional foods," says Lapsley. "Rodger was looking to expand the nutrition research side – post production. He didn't have the published science to back up the health claims they were making and needed to bring scientific rigor and process to the research ABC was funding." At the time, the Almond Board was promoting the cholesterol-lowering benefits of almonds based on a "study" involving volunteers from the Modesto Rotary Club and Ripon Chamber of Commerce. "We drew their blood in the office at the Almond Board, gave them a 30-day supply of almonds and told them to eat a handful every day," remembers Wasson. "One woman from Ripon had such good results we took out a full-page ad in Parade Magazine featuring her story." Those were different times but even then, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) frowned on making health claims without sound scientific evidence. "Karen got us on track," says Wasson. "And kept us a notch ahead." Earning the hearth health claim Lapsley, who was born and raised in Montreal, Canada, earned her Doctor of Science from the Swiss Institute of Technology and began her career in consumer communications and quality assurance with a multinational food company, T. J. Lipton/Unilever. She was already heading up research for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Canadian government's Department of Agriculture, when Wasson called. "I somehow convinced Karen to move from Canada to Modesto, even after taking her on a walking tour of the town on a 113-degree day," Wasson said. After moving to Modesto with her husband, John, and joining the Almond Board staff, Lapsley quickly went to work validating the premise that eating almonds helps lower cholesterol as part of a heart- healthy diet. "Almonds were being lambasted as 'high fat,'" explains Lapsley. "We had to prove the cholesterol-lowering effect – was it just good fat, or the combination of good fat, fiber and protein?" Lapsley engaged researchers at the University of Toronto and Loma Linda University in California to conduct clinical trials on the effect of eating a handful of almonds every day on blood cholesterol. The outcome of the trials, published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, led the U.S. Food and Within a couple years of joining ABC, Lapsley met with various nutrition researchers on a trip to India, during which she stopped at the famous Humayun's Tomb.

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