Back in 2010, protein bars were dismissed as poor candy substitutes — by the fitness industry and consumers alike. According to Tom Bilyeu, co-founder and CEO of Quest Nutrition, the category was declining even as companies continued to launch new flavors in an attempt to boost sales. Bilyeu chose that seemingly inopportune moment to bring something new to market, but he was driven by something more than calculated risk.
Although he believed he had a better-quality, great-tasting product, his motivation for leaving a successful tech career was a personal passion. Growing up with morbidly obese family members, he wanted to create nutritious products that people would enjoy, and in the process, he wanted to transform the food industry. And indeed, Bilyeu and team have created one of the most successful and fastest-growing private companies in America, at the vanguard of nutritional concepts that others in the industry may test and support or refute — but that get attention either way.
24Life asked Bilyeu about how he and his two partners helped spawn a revolution in the health and fitness industry by making clean eating fun and where things are going next.
24Life: How did your company, Quest Nutrition, get started?
Tom Bilyeu (TB): I say it somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but Quest Nutrition is a company that was born out of misery. My partners and I had a very successful technology company before this, yet none of us were satisfied.
We asked ourselves this fundamentally life-changing question: “What would we do every day that we would love, even if we were failing?” That became our guiding principle.
Health and fitness was where we wanted to be for various reasons. For me, I grew up in a morbidly obese family and had an uncle who ate himself to death. On the other hand, one of my two partners, an avid practitioner of mixed martial arts, was desperately trying to add muscle mass without success. We realized that diet was the most important part of any physical transformation — more so than time spent in the gym. So we decided we wanted to make food that people could choose based on taste, and that food happened to be good for them. On top of that, we wanted to put value ahead of making money.
24Life: That was radical at the time. Now fast-forward six years. How have industry and consumer perceptions changed?
TB: One of the things that’s most exciting is that there is a growing awareness that people need to change their diet in order to have an impact on their health. And oddly enough, six years ago that was a tough message. People really weren’t hearing that. Now there is an understanding that sugar is wildly problematic from a metabolic standpoint and a growing understanding that sugar hides in a lot of different places under different names. We’re also seeing the rapid reversal of the cultural stigma toward fat.
[We are honored to be] in the industry’s vanguard. We had a great product before we made the change [from isomalto-oligosaccaride, or IMO, to soluble corn fiber], but we knew the product could be better metabolically. When we first made the switch, people said it was because we wanted a cheaper ingredient, but in reality, soluble corn fiber is twice as expensive. [And the benefits of corn fiber include that] you can measure it in your blood, it has a low insulin and blood sugar response, and it’s fermented in the gut.
We think it’s awesome that the industry is doing more research in this area because our goal is to change the food industry — the whole food industry — from the way ingredients are made to the way products are made to the demands the food companies make of themselves.
24Life: What are some of the other areas you’re investigating and why?
TB: For me, personally, eating a ketogenic diet has completely transformed my relationship to hunger and food in general. It’s allowed me to get lean, and it’s eliminated all my joint inflammation problems [that arose from years of an ultra-high-protein, very low-fat and low-carb diet and exercise regimen]. Since I went ketogenic, I haven’t had to ice my wrists once, and I can’t emphasize enough how transformative that’s been for me.
We’ve put a lot of energy and research into building out an entire ketogenic line of products that is available to beta test. We’ve also invested in research on the ketogenic diet and cancer. In 1926, Otto Warburg realized that all cancer cells share a mutation that makes it impossible for them to burn fat, which means the cancer cell can only burn glucose. If that’s true, you should be able to starve the cancer to death through diet by eating a ketogenic diet.
I wanted to see if there was something here. We actually opened a 53-acre dog sanctuary in Texas, and for more than two years, we gave dogs with naturally occurring cancers a ketogenic diet, and we watched them. These were dogs on kill lists at shelters. We rescued them, and we just gave them a better diet. That’s all we did. We didn’t give them drugs. And we had staggering results [that have compelled us to research the impact of a ketogenic diet on human cancers].
Now, through our nonprofit organization called Epigenics, we’re funding human research with a ketogenic diet for people who have naturally occurring cancers. If the Warburg effect is real, you can starve the cancer with a ketogenic diet and dial the ONCOblot [a test for very early cancer detection] results back down. It’s too early to call it, but it’s important enough that that’s where we’re allocating a lot of our resources.
24Life: You started Quest with an understanding that people know they shouldn’t eat candy bars, but they still want the alternative to taste great. Transforming the food industry is a big goal. So how do you know where to focus? How do you deal with distractions?
TB: Eighty percent of business is knowing what not to do. There are three founders of Quest, and two of us are incredibly optimistic, and then the third is much more grounded and realistic. That helps. In the early days, we actually did Quest apparel, trying to translate the mindset piece into a clothing line, and it was a huge mistake and ended up being a distraction. But that failed experiment led us to “Inside Quest,” our video series with wellness experts, which I lead. And there we’re providing even more value to people outside of just their food.
We like to think that Quest is like a tech company: Whatever we bring to market today, we know it has to be improved. The technology’s rapidly improving, so we’re going to adjust our product, and the consumer makes that demand. If Apple didn’t launch another iPhone, it would stagnate and people would stop using it.
24Life: Where do you think the industry is headed?
TB: As a whole, manufacturing technologies, our understanding of human metabolism and our ability to source ingredients have gotten better, but most food companies still don’t change, and if they do change, it is only to drive costs down.
We think the food industry has to recognize the need for change on two fronts: (1) If you’re going to be making money as a food company, you have a moral obligation to be looking at your food and seeing if it is good for people or not. You’ve got to constantly upgrade and make things better, and you need to look at the metabolic impact of the products that you make. (2) There’s a huge opportunity now for companies to tap into the consumer’s demand that products and companies be socially aware.
24Life: What are your tips for other entrepreneurs just starting out? What should they focus on?
TB: You need to know what your mission is, what you’re trying to accomplish in life and ultimately define your passion. I don’t think passion is something you wake up with one day. I think passion is what is born out of taking something you’re interested in and developing mastery in it.
Getting into business is hard. I hope it’s easy. I hope it’s fun. I hope you love it. I can’t promise any of that. But I can promise it will be hard, and when it gets hard, if you have the belief, and you’re passionate about making your mission come true and you’re willing to fight through all the obstacles that will come your way, then you’ll see it through and you’ll actually accomplish something.
Editor’s note: Quest Nutrition invites consumers to try out and give feedback on products in development – such as ketogenic dessert cups and snacks. To participate, visit and register at Quest Labs.