2020 Produce Business 40 Under Forty Award Winner: Nikki Ford

Age: 37
Senior Director of Nutrition
Avocado Nutrition Center
Hass Avocado Board
Mission Viejo, CA

Dr. Ford has been instrumental in creating and running the nutritional research program at the Hass Avocado Board, and has directed and led the research on the health benefits of avocados. This has turned a once maligned fruit into being seen as a healthy super fruit and heart-healthy by the American Heart Association. She has been the senior director of nutrition since 2013 at the Avocado Nutrition Center (ANC) — the world’s only independent resource for avocado nutrition research. Without these programs, research into the health benefits of eating avocado simply wouldn’t exist. Her programs ensure a continuous stream of relevant and motivating health research about avocados while maintaining the highest scientific standards.

Before joining the ANC, Ford was involved in medical research at the University of Texas at Austin. Her career has focused on understanding the health benefits of consuming fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. She holds a B.S. in animal bioscience from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in Nutritional Science and a Certificate in Business Management from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has authored more than 40 scientific publications and regularly speaks at scientific and health professional meetings.

Hobbies: Reading, Hiking, Traveling, Visiting National Parks

Personal/Community: Married, one child

Motto in life: “Lead a FRUITFULL life.”

Q: How did you begin working in the produce industry?
I officially joined the produce industry in 2013 with my role at the Hass Avocado Board. Still, I’ve been working with and supporting the fresh produce industry throughout my entire career by working to understand better how foods reduce the risk of disease.

Q: What aspect of the business challenged you the most early on?
As there was more or less no research into the health advantages of eating avocados, we had to make our best guess at potential benefits by looking at the nutrients found in an avocado. So we had to take calculated risks. It would have been great to have more data to inform our decision process early in the development of the research pipeline. Even today, we’re often assuming potential health benefits based upon similar foods, like nuts and olives, which have decades of health research.

Q: What accomplishment are you most proud of in your career?
I obtained industry support for a large translational clinical research trial that includes 1,000 people enrolled at multiple research sites in the U.S. Working with world-renowned scientists, we’ve designed the Habitual Diet and Avocado Trial (HAT) that has no match in the fresh food industry. The study asks the critical question of whether eating avocados can reduce belly fat while looking at many other relevant health effects.

Q: What would you like consumers to know about the industry?
The avocado industry stands behind the avocado nutrition program and is committed to improving health through research without interfering in the scientific process. Consumers, health professionals, and scientists should turn to the Avocado Nutrition Center for legitimate avocado nutrition information.

Q: How has the industry changed during your tenure?
In the past seven years, we’ve grown the avocado nutrition research portfolio from a few rudimentary studies towards a reputable scientific research pipeline that will stand the test of scrutiny and time. We had some huge wins after the avocado industry committed to investing in the nutrition programs because now avocados can be marketed as heart-healthy and containing fiber, vitamin K, and other essential nutrients.