I’ve been in the healthy food biz for about 15 years now. I’m a card-carrying veteran of the natural and organic, health and wellness revolutions whose founding fathers were the hippies in the ’60s who were able to pursue one niche that The Man would not hassle him about.
So from the brown rice and tempeh and bulgar and sprouts and bulk food sections arose a bona fide industry led by the likes of soymilk pioneer Steve Demos, botanical growers and aficionados like Mark Blumenthal, and natural foods retail queen Sandy Gooch.
A curious vibration is now shivering the timbers of food scientists in mainstream multinational processed food corporations from Nestle to Unilever, Kraft to ConAgra.
The hum I’m feeling is the long cry of the food technologist who has to defend his very job title.
Even PepsiCo chief scientific officer, Mehmood Khan, PhD, at the Institute of Food Technologists’ (IFT) annual convention here in Vegas this week, said that all the modern processed food industry was good for was to “scale carbohydrates and distribute them,” lamenting, “Are we a food industry or a starch, sugar and fat industry?”
Mind you, that’s a mainstream food titan insider speaking.
His lament is borne out by consumer perceptions. The Food Marketing Institute conducted a consumer study and found that 55 percent agreed that America’s approach to food production is on the wrong track.
“This is a scary number, for over half the population to feel that way,” said Susan Borra at FMI. “Why are we on the wrong track?”
Want a top 10 list of our food problems? Here’s a good one:
- Too much sugar
- Food processing strips nutrients
- Too much fat, from saturated fats to trans fat
- Fast food
- High fructose corn syrup
- Mass production of monocultured fields
- Less local
Jon Entine, who’s been called an “apologist” for the processed food industry, noted at the IFT convention that, “even the words 'food' and 'technology' in the same sentence makes people cringe.”
Dr. Andrew Weil, MD, summed up the sorry state of affairs vis a vis the modern food system and the modern suite of chronic degenerative diseases by saying, “If I could summarize everything I know about nutrition in one sentence, it would be to stop eating refined, processed and manufactured foods. It’s that simple.”
Call processed foods by any other name?
Back at IFT, when a panelist at a talk on the future of processed foods asked if maybe the industry needs to find another word to describe what they really mean when they say processed foods, everybody’s eyes lit up.
It’s the tack the Corn Refiners Association tried to take. In order to get the public to stop hating on high fructose corn syrup, they petitioned the FDA to have its name changed to the more benign “corn sugar.” Didn’t happen.
I could imagine a couple of phrases that would probably suffice in lieu of processed foods. Doesn’t “prepared foods” sound much more charming? What do you think about “convenience foods?” Purrrrrrr, right?
The larger point is that the mainstream food industry is experiencing a sea change, away from highly processed, synthetic chemicals—as if the stuff we put in our bodies was a chemistry project—and toward natural and wholesome ingredients.
I spoke to one natural nutrient supplier who interacts with the heavies in the mainstream food world. He said that in latter-day meetings, execs won’t even bother listening if you have an ingredient that is anything other than natural. That goes for flavorings, colorants, nutrients, all down the list.
Sure, there are still companies out there that think if they trim the sodium, or eliminate the trans fat, or go low-cal, they deserve a halo. Others take their same-old same-old processed food product, add in a dollop of the fashionable natural ingredient du jour (can you say “omega-3s?”) and believe they’re all set to call Whole Foods Market.
But consumers are leading this revolution.
The new mantra is “natural nutrient-dense whole foods.” The modern mainstream food industry, long accustomed to delivering tasty, cheap, subsidized, refined carbs, starches, sugar and fat in any variety of formats, is exhibiting the twitchiness that comes from turning the ship of state away from the iceberg.
It’s good to see.
What do you think about renaming processed foods? Share in the comments.