Food

Big Business & The Integrity of Natural Products

Written by Nick Andre

Natural food brands are being bought up by large corporations at an ever growing pace. A look down the list of the most popular natural product companies reveals a striking reality that a majority of the top brands are now owned, at least in part, by large conglomerates. There are many questions being raised about whether the integrity of these products are being compromised for added profits, or if this is the model of success. Additionally, many top food conglomerates are introducing their own organic brands based on their conventional products. These acquisitions and introductions have been raising both alarm and joy within the natural community.

Many commend the buy-outs and mergers as proof that natural products are becoming mainstream. A victorious success in the sense that education and awareness have pushed natural sales sky-high. At the most basic level, isn’t it most natural products enthusiasts goal to eliminate the poor food and chemical production methods of the 20th century with a back to nature approach? At this, the trend proves we are winning, or at least making strident progress. The rapid growth of grocers such as Whole Foods, the sudden explosive interest in farmers markets and artisan producers, the spotlight on nutritional content of public school cafeterias, and the buy-out trends of natural companies, are all evidence of such progress.

Image by: Philip H. Howard

However, before we declare the current model victorious, we must take a deeper look and ensure that the companies aquiring these brands continue to manufacture them with the same practices and values on which they were founded. A quick look at the iconic Kashi food company, considered by many to be one of the most successful natural food brands in history and now owned by Kellogg, reveals a slow departure from the once strict natural standards.

A number of Kashi products now contain ingredients that are questionable. For example, Kashi GoLean Protein & Fiber Bars contain fractionated palm oil and crystalline fructose. Fractionated palm oil is traditional palm oil that has been put through a process to harden and shelf-stabilize it. The fractionation process for oils is an alternative to hydrogenation, that unlike hydrogenation, avoids the production of trans fats. However, it does produce higher levels of saturated fats compared to unprocessed palm oil and is done to extend shelf life of the product. Crystalline fructose is a corn derived processed sugar that is comprised of 100% fructose, as opposed to table sugar which is comprised of 50% fructose 50% glucose. There was much outcry over high fructose corn syrup due to the fact that the sweetener was comprised of 60% fructose of 40% glucose. This is because there is evidence that suggests over consumption of fructose is one of the main driving factors behind diabetes, obesity and heart disease. That being said, Kashi is now using a sweetener that is 100% fructose, the worst form of sugar for ones health. The reasoning behind its use is most likely because, being derived from corn, it is cheap. These are surely ingredients that a pre-Kellogg owned Kashi would have scorned.

Another example is Stoneyfield Farms, the popular organic diary brand now owned by Hood Corporation. Sometime around 2009, Stoneyfield began using powdered milk imported from New Zealand to produce some of their yogurt. Milk in a powdered form is a far cry from the original principles of dairy from local, organic, family owned farms. Stoneyfield founder Gary Hirshberg signaled it was not an ideal situation by stating “we can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good” when asked about the situation by Glenn Croston of StartingUpGreen.com. Granted the powdered milk is still organic and from cows with no synthetic hormones, however, it seems as a departure from the company’s original values. Powdered milk being formed into yogurt isn’t something normally associated with organics.

Overall, as organics become more mainstream, the goals and ideals of the natural food movement start to be realized on a full scale. However, a careful eye must be placed on the integrity of these products once they are acquired by conglomerates. In the case of Kashi and many others, it may be time to move on to other brands who truly have the organic movement at heart and share our principles. At the same time, efforts for awareness are necessary to reveal the slow transformation of what once were great healthy brands into more conventional products through “greenwashing” and tricks in the food labs. It raises the question whether big business and natural products can ever exist in tandem or if they are inherently incompatible? Only the future holds the answer.

Image by: Philip H. Howard

Image by: Philip H. Howard

References:

Croston, Glenn. “Gary Hirshberg, CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farm.” Starting Up Green. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://www.startingupgreen.com/index.php/eco-entrepreneur-profiles/4-eco-entrepreneur-profiles/12-gary-hirshberg>.

Howard, Philip H. “Organic Industry Structure.” Journal of New Media Caucus. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://www.newmediacaucus.org/html/journal/issues.php?f=papers&time=2009_winter&page=howard>.

“The Organic Myth.” Businessweek. 16 Oct. 2006. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_42/b4005001.htm>.

Taubes, Gary. “Is Sugar Toxic?” New York Times. 13 Apr. 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17Sugar-t.html?_r=3&pagewanted=1&hp>.

Weil, M.D., Andrew. “Can Fructose Trigger Hyperactivity in Kids?” Dr. Weil. 30 June 2005. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/id/QAA38595>.

Weil, M.D., Andrew. “Tropical Oils: What’s Healthy? What’s Not?” Dr. Weil. 30 Mar. 2005. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/id/QAA118473>.

About the author

Nick Andre

Nick is the Managing Editor of ModernSerenity.com and the Managing Director of Kumani Inc., a Certified Green web development and business consulting firm. A graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has deep passions for nutrition, organic agriculture, renewable energy, and the environment, which led him to found Modern Serenity in 2009. Nick is also a bit of a political junkie and is involved in environmental advocacy, land conservation efforts, and more.