Food Resolutions for Thought

How’s that New Year’s Resolution going? Perhaps you vowed to drink less or hit the gym more? Maybe you promised to eat healthier food.

f3b8The Washington Post must have resolved to knock it out of the park with food-related columns and articles this year. For instance, food isn’t healthy, NOT EVEN KALE. Before you toss the device you’re reading this on away from you in disgust, check out the article. Or read my summary: foods hold different nutrients. It’s how we nourish ourselves with them makes us healthy. The whole of our diet matters more than kale or bacon alone.

Moving on, this WaPo column, The surprising truth about the food movement, details the chronic over-hyping of the Food Movement, the fruit of self-sufficient ideas planted by Back-to-the-Land hippies in the 1960s. Their ethos grew into the ideologies behind bestsellers, such as anything by Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and the evolution of New York Times columnist Mark Bittman from a foodie to the founder of vegan-ish-ism.

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The Food Movement’s message is loud clear: people want real food. Real food is nutritious, lacks pesticides, local and doesn’t hurt anyone in its production. It’s also nice to the animals you’re eating. Wild is better than farmed. Foraged is best. (Note: This last point may be a sentiment confined to Wisconsin thing.)

But, in general, Americans aren’t so clear about whether they want a food movement. The amount of processed foods purchases barely budged from 2002-2012.

What’s more: it’s a bit of nostalgic fantasy that Americans in general have the time and money to buy, prepare and eat all whole, local, sustainable foods while living modern lifestyles. Who has time to prepare 21 fresh meals each week? Who’s going to give up their guilty-pleasure Girl Scout cookies and Bagel Bites? Luckily for today’s Americans, it’s that whole-shebang diet, not just an heirloom tomato or a Twinkie, that makes up our diet.

So, the column continues, food manufacturers are producing the next best thing to Food Movement-friendly, whole foods: processed perishables produced with more natural ingredients that are closer to foods than, as Polan would say, food-like substances.

Nonetheless, people are thinking more about food, and it’s grown into a conversation that’s taking root in public policy. SNAP money is redeemable at farmers markets. More insurance companies (at least in the Madison, Wisconsin, area) are offering to pony up for part of your CSA (community-share agriculture, which is kind of like a ritzy subscription to a farm). As increasing numbers of consumers seek sustainability and food transparency, the big players in an industry starved for profits are listening more closely.

Campbell’s Soup Co. announced it’s in favor of GMO labeling on products, a food fight that’s been raging nationally for more than a decade. Kellogg’s has resolved to remove all artificial ingredients in its cereals by 2018. Food industry consultancy and thought leader Euromonitor named sustainability one of the top trends of 2016.

The WaPo column says these food formulation changes are a pittance in regards to the big picture. But I disagree.

Food tells a story about how we once lived. The United States was, at one time, a patchwork of farming communities. But we’ve been uprooted. The most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Census showed that those who count farming as their livelihoods is decreasing rapidly as farmers age.

Humans, being the hunters and eaters that we are, have been disconnected from our natural habitat. Our bodies weren’t designed for a leisure-rich technological age. But reconnecting to our food, even if it’s just through naturally colored Annie’s Homegrown White Cheddar Bunnies crackers, is important. It reminds us of where we came from. Because that means we’re thinking about it. We want to be healthier, like nearly every New Year’s resolutioner.

Change to a more nutritious food system won’t happen overnight. But moves toward more natural products, ingredients and production methods help us feel more connected to the land that sustains us, the land we’re all joint stewards of. And that keeps us thinking.

So maybe you haven’t completely followed through on your New Year’s Resolution. But you’re thinking about it, right? An extra trip to the gym and a few fewer drinks or donuts each week make a significant cumulative difference. Small changes incrementally result in a new norm, leading to large and long-lasting results.

2014: The Year of the Label

What’s in a name? Or, more appropriately for food manufacturers, what’s on a label? In 2014, this question will be analyzed from angles we’ve yet to imagine. 

While the federal government struggles to implement the Food Safety and Modernization Act, industry groups and large food processors are taking up the mantle to define food labeling. For some large processors, the sustainable practices often associated with this type of labeling, as well as the larger consumer movement for food information, have become part of corporate strategy and reliable ingredient sourcing. Food manufacturers are wise to keep a close watch on these developing trends to best position their operations for changes in both labeling and the product content it describes.

GMOs: General Mills kicked off 2014 by slapping “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients” labeling on boxes of original Cheerios. The breakfast classic’s primary ingredient, oats, made the transition simple because that crop’s never been genetically modified. But, like green grocery innovator Whole Foods’ demand that suppliers label GMO content by 2018, such moves by big players are a bellwether of what could become the norm.

Food manufacturers are keeping a hawk’s eye on GMO labeling policy. Campbell Soup Co. Vice President of Manufacturing Mark Cacciatore said in an interview in December “… we need consistency in legislation. It would be chaos for us if there were different [GMO labeling] requirements in different parts of the country.”

Last year, 26 states introduced GMO labeling legislation, sparking several highly publicized and narrowly defeated votes. Only two states succeeded: Maine and Connecticut passed GMO labeling laws that go into effect only if four other large states also implement labeling laws. Several states are already proposing laws regarding GMO agriculture and foods this year.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is pitching a federal GMO policy that would make the labeling voluntary, preempt state laws on GMO labels and shift much of the responsibility of OKing GMO foods to the Food and Drug Administration.

Natural: In the same proposal, the GMA wants the FDA to define the term “natural” and preempt states from defining the word. The FDA admits “natural” is difficult to define. It hasn’t objected to foods labeled “natural” if they’re free of added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. But that’s advice, not law. In the last year, well-known manufacturers including Pepperidge Farms, Naked Juice, Ben & Jerry’s and Frito-Lay dropped the word from their labeling and marketing as suspect ingredients were called into question amid a flurry of class-action suits. 

Sustainable: McDonald’s recently vowed to source only “verified sustainable beef” for its burgers by 2016. This year, the fast food giant said it aspires to support development of global principles and criteria for that beef. “Sustainable,” like “natural” is another labeling term that lacks uniform definition.

Nutrition Labeling: Facts Up Front, the front-of-package nutrition labeling initiative spearheaded by the GMA and Food Marketing Institute in 2011, is expected to unleash a $50 million ad campaign. Supporters including General Mills, Kraft and Mondelez International will likely fund their own promotion of the labeling. The GMA said as many as 80 percent of products from participating manufacturers will display Facts Up Front by the end of 2014.

Food Date Labels: In its campaign against food waste, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has honed in on food date labels printed on packaging. Often interpreted by consumers and retailers as expiration dates, the council and some manufacturers say this date instead indicates peak freshness. As the date comes and goes, confused consumers toss the food out due to safety concerns. This could add up to hundreds of dollars’ worth of annual waste for American households. The NRDC calls for a simpler date labeling system for food. Though the FDA and USDA regulate food label dating, they don’t define the date terms, leaving it up to states. Lack of an industry-wide definition equals more food in dumpsters, according to the NRDC. 

Food labeling is the industry topic to watch in 2014. Food Manufacturing will keep you posted with daily news, articles and blogs at http://www.foodmanufacturing.com.

This article originally appeared in Food Manufacturing’s January/February 2014 print issue.