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If Big Food wants my trust, they'll need to earn it

Jenna Blumenfeld
In the words of a 9th grade English teacher, big-food companies must show (not tell) their loyalty to ingredient transparency, integrity and sustainability.

Lately there have been a lot of natural product acquisitions and strategic partnerships. Epic Provisions to General Mills. Krave Jerky to Hershey’s. Boulder Brands to Pinnacle Food. Applegate to Hormel.

Core natural consumers usually balk at such mergers—often for good reason. The classic natural acquisition story goes as follows: Passionate entrepreneur starts small natural brand. Small natural brand grows into bigger natural brand. Large consumer packaged goods company (CPG) pays for natural brand. Natural brand looses authenticity and values. Consumers revolt, in many cases through social media.

An example: Remember when Kellogg-owned Kashi came under fire for selling products that contained genetically engineered ingredients while calling its product “all-natural”? Kashi agreed to pay nearly $4 million to settle a class-action lawsuit. Kashi’s reputation was tarnished—and its Facebook page plastered with vows of boycotts.

But as the natural products industry matures, and CPGs realize that interest in cleaner, healthier eating is not a trend, I think the narrative is changing.

Could the big bad consumer packaged goods company be big, but not bad?

I recognize that CPG leaders have a tough job. They’ve inherited legacy products like sacchrine cereal, briny condensed soup, frozen jam-filled pastries and high-fructose corn syrup-containing peanut butter. The ingredient paradigm is changing, however. General Mills said it would eliminate artificial colors and flavors from its entire line of cereal, including Lucky Charms and Trix; Kraft Macaroni and Cheese will transition to natural colors; Campbell’s said it would label GMOs in all of its products. Things are improving.

Such transitions to cleaner product formulations aren’t just beneficial for CPGs because they inspire abstract consumer loyalty—they're good for business, too. As food thought leader Robyn O’Brien recently noted on Twitter, improved transparency benefits the bottom line.

Great motivation to adopt natural industry values, right?

CPGs want a slice of the (organic, dairy-free) natural industry pie. And it’s inspiring to see them move in a positive direction. When large companies make commitments to source more organic ingredients, organic farmers have consistent buyers, incentivizing them to convert more conventional farmland to organic. Supply chains streamline. Prices lower. Smaller food brands can afford better ingredients. Good food access improves.

But the reason the natural industry does so well is because CPGs exist in the first place. They used non-foods like stabilizers, preservatives. They used ingredients grown with chemicals or pesticides. They sourced meat and eggs from animals raised on factory farms. They pumped sugar into everything.

Prove your trustworthiness

Consumers don’t trust CPGs because these companies haven't given us a reason to trust them. They told us they were trustworthy in advertisements, but in the words of my 9th grade English teacher, they didn’t show us.

So, food corporation pining for seat at the clean-eating table, prove it. Give me a reason to trust you. Make a gesture so grand that I can’t help but love you. And I want more than a reluctant commitment to begrudgingly remove artificial colors and flavors from your existing product lines.

A few ideas: Partner with an organization dedicated to restoring the soil, such as the Savory Institute. Support OSC2, a natural industry collective dedicated to finding zero-waste packaging solutions. Take a note from Clif Bar’s playbook and make it easier for young people to succeed in farming by backing loan-forgiveness programs for organic producers. A lot of you have donated money to anti-GMO labeling state campaigns. Atone by supporting legislation to establish a national, mandatory GMO labeling initiative.

As O’Brien pointed out, there’s a good reason to transform other than health for people and the planet: money.

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