Vegan Nutrition with Geoff Palmer, Founder of Clean Machine

We chat with Geoff Palmer, a vegan of 35 years who has done some amazing things for vegan nutrition and the vegan community as a whole. After overcoming chronic depression and turning his life around by going vegan, Geoff became fascinated by the science behind vegan nutrition. This led to his forming of Clean Machine, a plant-based fitness nutrition company. Hailing from Florida, Geoff also started the world’s first all-vegan bodybuilding competition last year, while also having been nominated as a Top 100 Influential Vegan by Plant Based News.

It’s not often that you meet someone who has been vegan for almost four decades! Geoff confides in us the challenges of starting a vegan nutrition company and gives some fantastic advice for what he refers to as “vegentrepreneurs”. He also shares his passion for bringing lesser-known plants to the market with his products, which are innovative, eco-friendly, and incredibly nutrient-dense.

If you’re not well-versed in vegan nutrition, don’t worry, because Geoff explains the science behind plant protein and omega-3s, sharing with us his latest discoveries. From the discussion around B12 and vitamin K, to how to address the question of “Where do you get your protein from?”, Geoff makes the vegan nutrition world accessible and informative to everyone. Plus, if you’ve ever wanted to align your life with your values, Geoff’s story is a great source of inspiration.

What is your vegan story?

I became vegan back in March 15th, 1985. I know the exact date because that’s how important it was to me! At that time, I was struggling in life due to chronic depression – I lost my mother and my father and two brothers in a short period of time – and it was crushing me emotionally. Also, I was dealing with the question of how to be an intelligent and emotionally sensitive male in a world that’s so aggressive. I had a different mindset; I really didn’t feel like I fit into the world. All of those challenges together really put me in a place where I just wanted to end it all.

Fortunately, I ran into someone who I thought was so happy, and it was an amazing experience. He talked to me through that emotional pain to find the love that was at the core of my being. I saw the whole world and my place in it, in a totally different way. I released that pain and I was so happy, and I was literally floating. My hands felt like I had plugged them into electric sockets! I had so much energy running through me. It was an extraordinary experience and I felt so grateful to be going from wanting to end my life twice, to almost feeling like being reborn into a different place.

I sat up all night meditating because I couldn’t go to sleep, and I was so full of energy. It was like being on forty cups of coffee at once. I was so grateful for being released from my own suffering that I thought, How can I give this back? How can I pay this forward? My internal voice just said, Stop harming animals. It was such a lightbulb moment. Why did I not see that before?

Long story short, that really was the turning point. When I changed that perspective, everything else changed. The whole way I saw work and life – everything changed. I thought, that’s who I am. That’s me being in this world correctly. I was doing it wrong the whole time. Immediately that day, I quit drinking, quit doing all drugs, quit smoking cigarettes, and quit eating all animal products. That day, and that moment, was 35 years ago. For me it was absolute: I just didn’t want to harm myself or any other creature ever again. Next was learning how to apply that to my lifestyle.

How are things different for vegans today compared to when you decided to go vegan 35 years ago? How did you even learn about the dairy and egg industries back then? 

Obviously back in 1985, it was before people made films and wrote books about veganism. There was no Internet yet in public use, so no social media or anything like that. I had decided that I just didn’t want to use any animal products, period. So, I got rid of all the leather, cleaning materials, and everything else. At that time, I didn’t even know the word “vegan.” Actually, I was calling myself a “strict vegetarian” because that was the language I knew, until someone came up a year later and said that I was vegan. I thought, Yes, there’s a word for this!

My father was an English professor and my mother was a psychologist. Their friends had children, and of course they were all very bright people, so the questions about my lifestyle started coming right away. They asked, “What about protein?” I didn’t have answers for this. My heart said, “I know this is right, so I’m going to find the answers.”

In college I was a bio-psych major, which is looking at the whole body’s physiology, and how it affects mood and behaviour, instead of just brain chemistry. One of the things I came across was this chemical, serotonin, which is what makes us feel happy, along with dopamine and a couple of others. I wondered what was inhibiting it, and it turned out to be a chemical that is released from animals when you slaughter them. When we ingest it, our brain misinterprets that as its own chemical, and that actually reduces serotonin levels.

I thought, Wow, on a chemistry level, we are ingesting the harm we are doing to animals, which actually reduces our ability to be happy. That’s karma, but it’s true science. Real, physical science. Not even on an energetic level; on a literal chemical, physical level. It is stopping us from being as happy as we could potentially be.

My goal was asking one thing, which was “How do I commit less suffering?” Eating those animals was keeping me unhappy. When I became vegan, I allowed my happiness level to go free. When my wife first met me, she said, “Okay, nobody can be this happy all the time!” But who doesn’t want to be happier? That’s when I thought about how I should apply myself.

With nutrition, I was so keen. I saw what changing my nutrition did for me, and my microbiome, but also in changing my mood, changing my health, and changing my fitness level. I was a junior Olympic swimmer in high school and college, and I loved it. Also, I loved seeing how food corresponded to my performance. When I cleaned up my diet with being vegan, the changes were so amazing!

What inspired you to start Clean Machine?

My work was at a job I didn’t really care for, it was top-down thinking, with an old-school mindset. It took me many years, but I finally formed Clean Machine – with the help of my vegan wife, who told me to stop doing things that I hated, and to make my life align with who I am. This is similar to what you’re doing with IN VEGANS WE TRUST, and I love that. It’s such a blessing when I see people who are making a living in alignment with their values. There’s nothing more satisfying than that experience.

Here I am at 57 years of age and I’m carrying more muscle than I did when I was 30, with a completely vegan diet. I wanted to be that example for others, but also exercise and nutrition are key foundations to enjoying life. Why not start there? So that’s what really got me into Clean Machine. And then my early days of searching for those answers to “Where do you get your protein?” led me on a true scientific search to find the research out there that showed again and again the benefit of plants.

Close up of clean green protein with a scoop of powder in the foreground.

When we look at animal products versus plant products, we can see how plant products are much more beneficial in preventing cancer, heart attack, stroke, diabetes – all of these diseases we know about. But if we dig even further, we can see that there are higher sulfur amino acids in animal products than there are proteins. The actual chemical structure, the amino acid profile, of animal protein compared to plant protein is different, and does result in different effects. When you consume plant products, that fiber actually neutralizes TMAO (Trimethylamine N-oxide) that would never even be produced when you consume a plant-based diet. All the negative effects that are coming from eating the same protein, from an animal, have a very different response in the human body. I wanted to try to find that and share that with people. That’s why I do lectures all over the USA.

Was it difficult to enter the fitness and nutrition world as a vegan when you first started? 

Totally! I got laughed at, to be honest. I worked 30 years in the natural products industry, with sports nutrition companies with some of the major players, top retailers, and distributors. Plant-based was thought of as “Nobody’s going to want that.” I remember my brother laughing at me and saying I would never make any money doing that. But since Vega, one of the top plant-based companies, has sold for half a billion dollars, I don’t think people are laughing anymore.

The amount of growth we’re seeing in the plant-based movement right now is just phenomenal. But it took a long time. When I turned vegan 35 years ago, people said, “Vegan? What is that, a planet?” They didn’t even know the term. Now I think pretty much everyone has heard the word, knows of it, and has even tried vegan products. They’re in almost every grocery store and most fast food places even now. All the major companies, like Nestle, are putting out plant-based products. What’s really great is seeing the funding starting to shift. People are saying, “This is the future”. It’s not a fad. Investment companies, with billions and trillions of dollars in their investments are spearheading major investments in products in the plant-based movement, which is fantastic. I’ve waited a long time to get to this.

Can you tell us about some of the ingredients in your products?

My goal was not to just make products to sell them. I hate sales, to be honest with you. I’m a science guy. I love sharing plants that are in our plant kingdom that most people aren’t even aware of, which could be amazingly beneficial for their health. I wanted to find these plants to bring them to market, and make them available to people who are really interested in the best in nutrition.

The very first product I launched was Cell Block 80. It has an amazing cactus flower ingredient, and that’s the reason I launched it. Cactus flower inhibits the conversion of testosterone to estrogen and DHT more than any other plant ever known. Even more so than most of the current therapies on the market. This is amazing. Obviously DHT can lead to prostate issues, and two published clinical trials showed that it [cactus flower] reduced prostate issues by 80%. I thought, Nobody knows about this plant, and nobody has ever even heard of it being used in this way.

It was the cactus flower of a particular species. I needed to get this out because it could actually stop people from suffering from very common health issues, like prostate issues, but also have a very good application in promoting overall health and fitness. So, I wanted to just keep finding plants like that and create products around them.

People say, “You’re a sports nutrition company and you’ve been in business for five years and you’ve got several products, so why don’t you have a plant protein? That should be the number one product you make, right?” There are lots of plant proteins out there, such as basic pea and rice isolate. I know they’re good, but the larger players are just out there pumping away. They’re advertising and lowering the costs – it’s just a cost game out there. If you want that, there’s plenty of good-tasting pea and rice proteins.

I personally don’t care for rice protein because it is one of the largest crop contributors of greenhouse gases in the world. Rice is grown in swamps, and bogs create lots of CO2. There’s also a lot of water usage. And of course, rice absorbs anything out of the air very well because it all just sits in the water and goes into the roots. There’s no filtration of the soil or anything like that, and that’s why you get such high heavy metal ratios in rice protein. Rice is not eco-friendly, yet most of the plant proteins out there are using rice protein. I wanted to do something really different that had a strong eco presence, and was also better than what was out on the market. I then found lentein.

What is lentein? Can you also tell us a bit more about the ahiflower oil in your products?

Lentein is commercially called such because of its trade name, but it’s named after water lentils. That’s kind of misleading because it has nothing to do with lentils! It looks more like a micro lily pad. It’s a tiny little freshwater plant, but it has a full root, it has flowers, and it’s a real plant that just grows right on the surface of the water. More commonly known as “duckweed,” it has up to 55% in protein, so it’s the highest in true protein out of any plant. It’s also the highest in nutrient density – higher than kale, spinach, spirulina, moringa – so it’s the number one superfood. We can also grow it in a near zero carbon footprint aquafarm. 98% of the water is squeezed out and returned to the tank.

The World Health Organization has said that it’s the most complete whole food that we know of. NASA is considering using it for their trip to Mars! It grows in just a couple of days from a spore to a whole plant; it recycles itself; and it’s totally beneficial. You never need to plant it, since it doesn’t require a seed. You can put it in half an inch of water and have a food source that is high in chlorophyll, lutein, and all the vitamins and minerals, and the very first plant to be shown to have bioactive B12 in it. It’s just a phenomenal plant and I’m so pleased to be the very first person in the world to bring this plant to market.

This is the same with ahiflower – it’s the highest in omega-3s of any plant in the world, and higher in an omega-3 called SDA, which is amazingly anti-inflammatory. There are five published human studies on it showing that it is as effective as anything else, four times more effective than flax, chia, hemp, and all of the rest of the other major plant-based sources by multiples. It’s just a phenomenal source of omega-3s.

That’s what I look for, is these incredible plants that nobody really has access to. They’re not in the grocery stores, they’re not available through other companies and most of the major brands won’t use them because they’re a little more expensive. These other companies don’t want to invest a lot of money into educating people about what they are. They want to use the ingredients that everybody’s familiar with and just make them taste good. They’re only worried about sales. I’m really interested in offering people the optimal nutrition from plants that give them something different as a choice, that they wouldn’t have access to if it weren’t for someone like me with an entrepreneurial spirit to say, “I just want to offer the best, I don’t care about the sales.”

How does vegan protein compare to animal protein?

There have been two really good studies that have shown that if you consume enough rice protein, that there is no difference between rice and whey protein. The second study looked at pea protein, while consuming it at a higher level, to get the leucine [an amino acid] levels up. Once you have the same leucine levels, the benefits of whey protein aren’t any different from plant protein. The benefit of whey protein in general is that it’s high in leucine. But if it’s high in one amino acid, that means it’s lower in other essential amino acids. So, it’s all stacked at the leucine level. That’s because a baby cow needs to go from 60 lbs to 600 lbs very quickly. Human beings should not be interested in going to 600 lbs quickly! That protein is designed for that animal. It is a cow’s milk for a baby cow.

When you simply increase the protein so that the leucine quantity is high enough, then the actual pea protein become more anabolic, which is more useful with muscle building. Actually, according to this study, people build 33% more muscle on pea protein at a higher level. That’s because they have more of those other essential amino acids.

We don’t need to stimulate growth to the same extent that a cow does. What we need is more of the building blocks – that’s what’s present in plants. There’s a big difference and yes, plants can actually be better at a higher level, but you do have to get proper amounts. Getting the right amount for athletes, especially plant-based athletes, means consuming a little bit higher amounts of protein than a normal person would, if you’re trying to gain muscle. The studies show that it’s even more important as you age. Our bodies become a little less receptive to protein as we age, and they found that adding more protein as you age over 40 and 50 can help you maintain muscle and improve overall health.

You created the first 100% vegan bodybuilding competition in the world. How did that come about?

I was fortunate enough to partner with the owner of the Fort Lauderdale VegFest in Florida, and we brought in a second partner for the show itself, the Naturally Fit Federation. We did an all-natural testing event with only vegans onstage. It was amazing! It was an incredible experience, but it took a lot of work to organize the event and to bring all the athletes together. We had it planned again for this year, but obviously the pandemic happened, so we’ve had to postpone.

You’ve been voted as a top 100 Influential Vegan in the past. How does it feel to be recognized for all your efforts?

It’s always nice to be recognized for efforts or anything that you do. But for me, veganism is never about me – it’s about the animals. It’s about helping others. My reward comes from seeing smiles on people’s faces when they make a change. Hearing people talk about their health improvements is my reward. Awards are nice to have because they lend you a bigger voice – they allow you to get speaking engagements and things like that, which is great. But communicating with people, helping people, and helping the animals, that’s where my reward comes from.

Do you have any advice for people who want to start their own vegan business?

Yes! Don’t compromise. You can be a confident vegentrepreneur, as I call it, but do your homework. Use a consultant. If you come up with an idea that you’re passionate about, do the business part as well. I do consulting for other vegan businesses because I mostly want to help them succeed. I see so many people with a great idea, a great concept, or a great product, but they don’t know pricing strategy, or how the market works, or how to properly build a product so that it’s profitable. If you’re not profitable, you can’t run a business. You’ll go bankrupt, and then you’re not succeeding, and you’re not helping anybody. You need to be profitable in order to allow for growth, in order to hire more people. And that’s a beautiful part of the business, getting to hire other vegans.

We have a vegan CFO and we have other vegan people working with us in our company. It’s a beautiful thing that we can continue to give back and support the community. We do 10% donations to plant-based non-profits every quarter. We also donate to Elephant International on every single transaction. Even people who are purchasing, whether they know it or not, are helping to support animal groups and the plant-based community. But do your homework. If you don’t have the business acumen, that’s okay! Find a partner who does or find a consultant who can help guide you through that process and set you up for success. A great idea is a great idea, but you have to understand the business side too.

What do you hope for the future of vegan nutrition?

I recently uncovered some research that shows why it’s important to get omega-3s in their non pre-formed state. A lot of the plant-based community is focused on trying to replicate animal nutrition, and I think that’s wrong. There’s a reason that plants have nutrition in a particular form. In omega-3 nutrition, you have:

  1. ALA, which converts to 
  2. SDA, then 
  3. ETA, then 
  4. EPA, then 
  5. DPA, then 
  6. DHA. 

A new study confirmed that it all goes in one direction only. So, if you’re taking EPA and DHA, like from algae, you’re starting at number four and number six. You’re not getting one through three at all. If you’re taking DHA, then you’re not getting any of the previous numbers, because the body can’t back-convert to those other forms. So, it makes more sense to actually start at the top with ALA, which is what plants produce, instead of EPA and DHA.

So, my next question was, “If everyone is starting at EPA and DHA and they think those are the only two important ones, are the other ones important?” This amazing study came out showing that the top three, ALA, SDA, and ETA actually increase brain IQ. Those with the highest amounts had more grey matter, more actual brain matter preserved for their entire life. This means less dementia, and less degradation of the brain, so those three omegas are vitally important. And they’re in plants, not in animals. So, what that tells me is that plant-based omega-3s are better than fish oil and you shouldn’t be trying to copy something that’s inferior. We need to start looking at it, but this research didn’t come out until we started including vegans.

K2 is another one. Vitamin K has two major forms: K1 and K2. Most plants have K1 in their form unless you ferment them: fermented soy, or tempeh, has K2. But animal products have already converted K2. So, this has been scaring the vegans with thinking they’re not getting K2, but only getting K1. Amazing studies show that all the research was done on omnivores, who were eating animal products and they had low conversion of K1 to K2. But when we convert to a vegan diet and eat more plants with more fiber, we feed the bacteria that actually do the conversion, so they populate. And now you have lots more of the bacteria in your gut converting that K1 to K2. In vegans, you have higher levels of K2 in the bloodstream!

So, this old data that was only looking at the standard American diet had a bad microbiome. It wasn’t until we had vegans in there with an ideal microbiome with lots of fiber and lots or pre-biotics that we actually could see what a true healthy metabolism was doing, and that vegans were producing more K2 than animal eaters. Many were using K2 as an argument why not to go plant-based. But just the opposite is true. I knew in my heart it was the right thing, and now 35 years later, I’m finding research that finally shows that plants are superior in every single way.

For the few things, like B12, we now know it’s in plants. B12 used to be in soil and in the bacteria. Animals do not make it at all; it comes from bacteria, the only organism in the world that makes B12. But B12 can actually be absorbed into the root system of plants, but because of our common farming practices, we wipe out all of the bacteria in the soil – all the fungicides and herbicides kill the bacteria. It’s dead soil; there’s no microbes in there producing B12 that can feed the plants.

B12 was in our water, but now we’re chlorinating the water, and it was in the soil but now we’ve got dead soil. If we go back to natural growing soil and microbe-rich, fungi-rich biodynamic soil, we can get that B12 back into the plants and put an end to this whole idea that “plants don’t have B12.” Yes, they actually do have B12, but it’s modern farming practices that have caused this problem.

This is just like a modern working environment that got us out of the sunshine. We now need D3 from a different source. If you remove the human animal from its natural habitat, you can expect some changes. We’re not getting the sun exposure, so we need to take D3 as a supplement. If you’re not taking care of the soil properly and not allowing the B12 to get into the plants, of course you’re going to have to take a supplement.

It’s time to get rid of this myth that there’s anything nutritionally void with eating plants. The change in our consumption habits and the way we live our lives has shaped our current reality.

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