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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

"Big Food" and you...a co-dependency

I gravitate to stories about “Big Food” companies because I worked at one for years and continue to support their research needs. These days companies like PepsiCo, Nestle, Kraft Heinz, and Unilever are getting attention because of the carbon footprint they leave, mostly because of plastic packaging. Packaged goods are almost by definition not good for the planet. Think of the vast quantities of non-renewable resources consumed every year in making, bottling, shipping, and storing in a climate controlled environment billions of individually packaged items designed to be shelf stable for a year or more. A just published study in Environmental Research Letters estimates that manufacturing food and inputs like fertilizer and transporting them alone – not what happens on the farm - accounts for about 11% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

As currently designed, packaged foods don’t feel like they’re part of a sustainable solution to feeding ourselves. I’m not sure the biggest companies are completely rethinking the packaged good model, yet, but sustainability goals are central to their communication with shareholders and the investment community, and there are circular model projects making the headlines. Both Coca Cola and PepsiCo are working on a paper-based bottle. In some cities you can order a refillable Haagen-Dazs pint container that you ship back through a third-party called Loop. There are other things happening, and environmental activists are keeping the pressure on.

Big Food has been the target of health and nutrition activism for much longer, of course. We all know that many packaged foods and beverages are not particularly good for us either but we indulge, while packaged food companies work diligently to meet our needs and wishes. We consumers rely on the convenience and cost of packaged foods. We believe our over-scheduled lives demand it. We enjoy, even crave, packaged foods that have been designed to touch all the right sensory buttons. Consumers and producers have been doing this dance for decades. We’re in a sort of mutually reinforcing loop.

IRI worldwide released its annual New Product Pacesetter report a couple of weeks ago. The top 2 new food and beverage products in 2020 were hard seltzers. Blame the pandemic. Rebel ice cream was number five, followed by Reign energy drink, Cheetos popcorn, and Kinder Bueno, a chocolate snack. Beyond Sausage, a plant-based alternative was one of only a few products positioned as healthier on this list of top sellers in their first year. The others being Mountain Dew zero sugar, and Reese’s Thins (which is pushing it…)

Health watchdogs keep pointing to the statistics around obesity, diabetes, and heart disease to make the case that our collective eating and drinking behavior isn’t improving. This IRI report would seem to bear this out. This despite claims in survey after survey that we say we are eating healthier, the advent of the FDA’s Food Plate which replaced the Food Pyramid in 2011 and subtly encourages less meat-eating, and despite efforts by food makers to make products “healthier.”

At least as far back as fifteen years ago, companies like Unilever, where I worked, were setting goals to reduce the amount of salt/sodium, saturated fat, and sugar in their products. Tons and tons of the “bad stuff” have been removed from convenience foods and drinks over the years. It’s not spotlight-grabbing material, though. Maybe because, at least partly, these efforts haven’t made a big enough dent in the nutritional profile of our favorite packaged foods. That’s what popped in my head when I read about a leaked internal report in which Nestle acknowledges that a significant percentage of the company’s food portfolio is unhealthy.

According to the Financial Times article, nearly 70% of Nestle’s main food and beverage products “do not meet a recognized definition of health.” This includes almost all of the company’s confectionary, ice cream, and beverage items, and a significant number of dairy products. Good thing they sell a sea of bottled water. Actually, not so good from a sustainability pov.

A follow-up article in Food Navigator talks about how the company will be revealing a big plan for addressing the widespread gap in the health profile of their products later in 2021. It seems they will be reviewing their entire portfolio of products to see what should be done to (I’m paraphrasing a Nestle source) “meet the nutritional needs of a balanced diet across all life phases.”

The scale of products deemed unhealthy by Nestle itself doesn’t surprise me. I’m not that surprised that this information was leaked. Without being too cynical, this story might be part of a campaign to change perceptions of the world’s largest food company. I am stunned that Nestle appears to want to seriously confront the nutritional content and healthfulness of its products. It would be no small task for the company to overhaul its portfolio. To make nutritionally sound products that we will be willing to buy – less salt, less sugar, less fat - and on which they will make a similar margin to what they make today.

Is it a watershed moment? There’s a chance it might be. It’s not just health activists complaining. Regulatory agencies are putting pressure on Big Food. And consumers are starting to ask demanding questions too, according to a Nestle spokesperson.

Nestle launched an innovation accelerator program in 2019 to expand the reach of its R&D program and speed up the process of getting functional foods to the market – foods with added good stuff, like a line of super fruit smoothies that help with immunity and energy. Maybe Nestle will take a similar approach to accelerating the process of taking out the “bad for you” stuff. There’s a limit to what Nestle can do, though. Ice cream is ice cream. Chocolate is chocolate.

If, like me, you don’t grow or forage for your own food you are in this co-dependent relationship with Big Food and all companies, large and small, that can now bring groceries right up to your door step. If food companies like Nestle are making an earnest step towards providing healthier food, and food grown and distributed more sustainably, what more can I do to shop, prepare, and consume more mindfully? I’ll have to be prepared to pay a bit more for food. My taste buds would need to adjust to less sweet and salt and fat.

But I’d need to give up on convenience more than anything, I think. Time and effort to make meals and snacks from basic ingredients. Then again, it is a co-dependent relationship. If we cut back on packaged, convenience foods, Big Food will need to innovate. They’ll have to figure out how to profit from those occasions when we don’t want a traditional package and the manufactured food inside.

I say hope for the best from our producer partners but plan and act to protect your true, best interests when it comes to eating healthier.

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