The Health Nut Billionaire Who's Giving Big to Better Understand the Food We Eat

David Murdock. His wealth is built on real estate, as well as pineapples, bananas and bagged salad greens. He’s the chairman and owner of Dole, and recently, he made an ambitious and generous pledge: $15 million annually in perpetuity to work at pinpointing exactly why certain foods are good for us.

That’s it in a nutshell. "Everybody knows you should eat bananas, pineapple, and spinach­—it’s common sense—but we don’t know why certain things are good for us," says Lynne Safrit, president of the David H. Murdock Research Institute, the affiliated charity that will receive the ongoing grants. "He feels we have yet to identify many of the things that are in our diets that we are receiving benefits from."

Recently, we at IP made the decision to broaden our Public Health vertical to include Wellness, so we could expand our coverage into the foggy realm where health grantmaking brushes with nutrition, exercise, meditation, and other related fields. And we’re glad we did. This is exactly the kind of grantmaking we’re starting to see more and more of, and exactly the kinds of areas that need more attention if people are to be truly healthier.

David Murdock has been interested in this stuff for many years, from his perch at the top of a huge food company that sells fresh fruits and vegetables, but also Dole Whip, Fruit Squish’Ems, parfaits, fruit crisps, and microwaveable oatmeal-and-fruit breakfast bowls.

Last year, Murdock gave $50 million to the research institute that bears his name, which is part of the North Carolina Research Campus, and which he founded in 2005. Before that gift, Murdock gave $135.3 million to support research and operations at the institute and more than $600 million to support construction and infrastructure. In the institute's words, its research "combines multiple scientific focuses spanning fruits, vegetables, grains, herbs, bioactive compounds, exercise physiology, post-harvest physiology to brain and fetal development." All this work seeks to find new ways to "promote healthy lifestyles and to prevent, treat and cure the most prevalent diseases of our times like cancer, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s and other diet and lifestyle-related disorders."

That's a big agenda, and the institute is actively seeking new research partners. After Murdock's most recent gift, it will certainly have the resources to broaden its reach. 

Why does David Murdock care so much about nutrition and wellness? Well, as is so often the case, this philanthropy is personal. 

For starters, he’s got a ton of guilt, rightly or wrongly, about his third wife’s death at age 43 of ovarian cancer. "He attributes her cancer, in part at least, to diet and the fact that he and his wife did not have healthy diets," Safrit says. "After she died, he became very disciplined."

Since his wife’s death in 1985, Murdock has been a poster boy for healthy living, eating a strict pesceterian diet and exercising daily. And that’s been well and good for him—still alive and active in his company at age 91 is a good indication of that—but what about the big wide world? That's where his institute comes in.

There really aren’t a whole lot of other well-financed research institutes so laser-focused on the set of issues that Murdock's outfit is taking on, even though these issues literally affect the well-being and life prospects of billions of people.

We can only hope that Murdock's obsession with improving human health also translates into changes at Dole, which makes a number of products that have been criticized by nutrition advocates as unhealty—such as Dole fruit cups. Many of its packaged fruit products have a lot of sugar or other sweetners, and mindful parents often steer far clear of what Dole makes. 

We don't know how much control David Murdock has over these matters or where the company's internal conversation stands about doing more to combat obesity. Unfortunately, we do know that philanthropy by corporations and their owners can often stand at odds with day-to-day business practices.  

One last point about David Murdock's giving: We don't imagine that he's done with human health philanthropy. While his latest big gift will make a dent in his fortune, there's still a lot more where that came from. We'll be watching to see what he does next.