All posts tagged food movement

Calorie Rich, Nutrient Poor: The Paradox of the Standard American Diet

A study published this month in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition (JACN) supplies data to support what has long been suspected: that our Standard American Diet, also known as SAD, makes us fat and paradoxically leaves us nutrient deficient. Food Navigator USA provides a summary of the study findings here.

SAD really is, well, sad.

Recommendations for calorie intake in adults are 1800-2200 calories per day for women and 2200-3000 calories per day for men. Given that more that 67% of adults are overweight or obese in the United States currently, consuming enough calories clearly isn’t the problem; the problem is selecting which calories to consume.

Highly processed, convenience foods are a major culprit. However, the fact that poor quality food exists isn’t news and, therefore, isn’t what we should be most worried about. The problem we need to focus on is how difficult is it for many Americans to tell the difference between highly processed junk and quality health food. If we could all tell the difference, given the opportunity, I know we would make better choices.

That’s where the debates currently defining the Food Movement come into play. Whether it’s GMO labeling, “natural” claims or how we describe cane sugar, these issues can all be grouped under the theme of transparency. Without transparency we lack information, and without information we cannot educate. Ultimately, it is a lack of education and knowledge that, for many, perpetuates poor food choices.

I don’t believe the answer is to get rid of packaged, convenience foods. My stance is quite the opposite, actually. Convenience foods play a critical role in my own modern, multitasking, mom-of-two-kids life. However, I believe they should play a supporting role and choosing them shouldn’t require the intel that being an insider in the food industry and having a doctorate supply.

Whatever your stance may be on the details of any specific Food Movement issue, it’s hard to disagree that transparency is good for all. Because with transparency comes information and it is information that fuels better choices for ourselves and our families.

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Image by Tony Alter

A Big Idea Worth Sharing – My Would-Be TEDx Talk

A few months ago, I got a call from an organizer of TEDx Seattle, asking if I would audition for their 2015 season. It took me a few weeks to get on board with the idea, but eventually I agreed as I decided it would be a good opportunity for me to work with some great speaking coaches and have a forum through which to crystallize some of my current thoughts about food and health. Long story short, I was not selected. Fortunately, I’m okay with it as the exercise still provided much of what I was looking to achieve. I got some great coaching and had an opportunity to draft a big idea worth sharing.

As a way to close the loop, I thought I would write out my big idea here. It’s not as polished as I like to think it could be, but I certainly believe it’s important and that’s why I’m sharing it. It’s about the way we define “healthy” in our society, specifically healthy food, why I think we’ve got it wrong and how I suggest we change it.

As a naturopathic doctor, I’ve found a rather non-conventional use for my training as a nutrition and health strategist to the food industry.

Naturopathic medicine is based on a set of principles, and there are two of these principles that I refer to most in my role. The first is docere, doctor as teacher, which is the idea that the role of a physician is to share information that empowers others to make healthy choices for themselves and their families. The other principle I frequently refer to is vis mediatrix naturae, also known as “the vis” or the healing power of nature, which is the idea that nature holds innate intelligence for how to be well.

It’s with this idea of “the vis” that I am struck by our current approach to health and nutrition science. Modern science allows us to drill down to amazing detail, seeing the microscopic elements of our world, and through this approach, identify and understand many important things. This approach has also led to the creation of a highly reductionistic framework where we understand things based on their individual elements versus the collective whole. In this way, the idea that the whole may somehow be greater than its parts…that there is an innate intelligence in the balance Mother Nature has created, is largely forgotten.

And from a food perspective, this is absolutely the case. Foods are largely seen as carriers for their elements: protein, omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins A, C and E. How these element naturally exist in relation to each other, or if they exist naturally at all in relation to each other is no longer something we seem to question or even have a context with which to understand.

A great example that brings this reductionistic philosophy to life is our government’s current definition of a “healthy” food which is defined by limits on fat, sodium and cholesterol plus the presence of specific levels of protein, fiber, iron, calcium, or vitamins A or C. Based on this approach, a jelly bean with added vitamin C could technically meet the definition of “healthy” while an almond does not.

It should be no surprise then that consumers are confused by this and it shows. Rates of obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases that are largely influenced by dietary choices are at epidemic levels. As a nation we are sick and fat and clearly unable to make healthful choices for ourselves and our families. The principle of docere in the food industry is failing. As the saying goes, this reductionistic approach to food and nutrition has left us unable to see the forest for the trees.

So, what if instead of continuing to focus on the individual elements, we took a step back and started to prioritize the bigger picture, or in the case of food, the whole apple, the whole broccoli, and the whole soy bean? I believe we can re-frame our understanding and approach to healthy food by doing two things:

  1. Reconnect with food in its natural state and understand what that means, especially from a nutrition perspective
  2. Trust that there is innate intelligence in the way food is naturally made and honor that innate intelligence

Fortunately, people are beginning to ask some of these questions and re-frame the way we define nutrition and health. Due to our current Food Movement, people are beginning to ask questions about how their food is processed, why their packaged fruit snack has a two year shelf life and if 30g of protein in their snack bar is realistic. And people are connecting the dots on a bigger level as well, asking questions about humane treatment standards for animals, genetic modification in food, and large-scale mono-cropping approaches to farming.

As someone who proudly considers the food industry to be her number one patient, I believe we have reached a tipping point and are primed to create a new framework for food and nutrition. Let’s ditch our reductionistic approach of jumping from high-protein to low-fat to vitamin-fortified trends and instead start examining the innate intelligence of nature.

And who better to do this than the Whole Food Markets, Wal-Marts, PepsiCos and Kelloggs of the world? That’s why making the decision to leave private practice and join the food industry ultimately became an obvious decision for me. With the principle of docere, doctor as teacher, and the food industry as my patient, I can bring “the vis”, the healing power of nature, to them…an industry that when it makes a small change has the power to impact the health of millions. That is the healing power of nature.

Image by Bartek Kuzia

The Parent-Child Relationship: Why Annie’s and General Mills Will Work

When I read the news Monday of the purchase of Annie’s Homegrown (NYSE: BNNY) to General Mills (NYSE: GIS) for $820 million I was stunned. Quickly, however, my surprise shifted to disbelief with myself that I didn’t see it coming given the path of Annie’s over recent years. Of course selling to a larger company was part of the grand plan, and thus, another parent-child relationship begins.

Working on the Kashi brand (acquired by Kellogg in 2000) for many years, I learned a few things about navigating these kinds of relationships. Today, as a consultant to the food and beverage industry, I’ve identified a pattern in the parent-child relationship and have come to understand that despite best intentions by all, the pitfalls and missteps are less about the specific attributes of the companies in question and more about the larger influencing factors of today’s marketplace that are all too often given priority. Unfortunately, Annie’s now faces the challenge of avoiding a stereotypic experience in the arc of acquisition, expanded distribution and profit, brand dilution (largely due to operational streamlining and decreased risk tolerance) and ultimate failure.

Act like a Bull Not an Ostrich in Today’s Food Climate

Individually, both Annie’s and General Mills are at the top of my list of companies who are doing it right in today’s food climate. Figuring out how to maintain relevance and leadership in the midst of the food awakening that is our country’s current Food Movement, Annie’s and General Mills have taken a bullish approach in their own size-appropriate way, maintaining a strong voice in the debate (Annie’s mostly) and making strategic changes in business practices that have been rewarded by shareholders in today’s tough climate (General Mills). Given this behavior and spirit, both companies bring compelling factors to their new relationship:

  • With other natural and organic brand acquisitions (Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen, LARABAR, Food Should Taste Good), General Mills demonstrates an awareness and acceptance of where packaged food is heading. Spending well over a million dollars to block GMO labeling initiatives may seem at odds (even hypocritical) to this behavior, but that’s where those “larger influencing factors of today’s marketplace” come into play and the saying, “the best defense is a good offense” rings true. To their credit, they are evolving their business in the right direction even if they are hedging their bet through financial contributions along the way.
  • Annie’s has a strong foundation of 25 years from which to solidify its reason for being in the world. Its philosophy in the areas of nutrition and people/planet health is established and, maybe more importantly, are clear keys to their success in market.
  • Annie’s is positioned for massive growth. From a successful VC incubation period that ultimately led to going public and the steady increases in product distribution and consumer awareness, short of a major mistake (and I don’t believe this is it), they really can’t fail right now.
  • From a timing perspective, we are years in at this point to the modern Food Movement debate and, as a result, both companies have had a good amount of time to demonstrate their positions on the big issues. If nothing else, this should provide all of the skeptics with some comfort in that both companies are less apt to do an about face on their stance and behavior.

Mom/Dad, You Don’t Always Know What’s Best

Purely from a business perspective, the parent-child relationship is all about diversifying the portfolio and mitigating risk. If you’ve ever worked with a financial advisor, you know that it’s just not smart to have all your money in bonds or in aggressive growth stocks. Spreading your money around is the safe bet, and so it is with large food companies. To a large degree, Annie’s represents an aggressive growth stock opportunity for General Mills, and from this perspective, it’s just business…no people and planet health aspirations required.

Taking the financial planning analogy a step further; being a successful financial advisor requires understanding where the market is heading. Identifying what’s big today is easy, real success happens when you are able to predict what will be big tomorrow. And that, General Mills (and all you other really big companies gobbling up the little guys), is what you need to keep in mind when you get your hands on Annie’s and start looking for opportunities to streamline processes and optimize systems.

Annie’s was born out of the beliefs that are leading the evolution of food and health in our culture today. Their philosophy was not adopted based on market trends and consumer insights data, it is part of their DNA, and when something is part of your DNA, you intuitively use it to guide every decision. It cannot be wrong because it exists from a consciousness that has evolved and survived through generations and across cultures.

On paper the Annie’s business looks a bit risky because they have chosen to do things that are not yet proven out in the market. They are attractive because their bets to date may payout big, but their aggressive behavior may also lead them to fail.

General Mills, I Challenge You to Parent Differently

So, Parent Company, this is where you have an opportunity to parent differently. Instead of guiding your child to be more conservative, more like her peers, more like you, stop. Expand your perspective to not only prioritize financial strategy but moral ethics as well. Honor the unique beliefs and attributes of your child and consider if their perspective isn’t just sweet innocence but inherent intelligence.

Taking this approach with Annie’s will be hard for General Mills. I’m sure there will be pushback internally within the business, it will mean living with complication, taking more risks and getting comfortable with a greater degree of uncertainty. It will mean going against tradition, instead of molding the child to fit the parent, it will mean changing the parent to emulate the child.

I think General Mills has what it takes. We’ll all just have to wait and see.

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Sales of Packaged, Processed Foods are Declining. Here’s Why…

Reading industry news this morning, I saw the title of a blog post from Marion Nestle, an expert I respect and follow closely, “Sales of packaged, processed foods are declining: Three reasons why”. Marion Nestle is a dynamo as far as I’m concerned, so of course I clicked to read more.

You can read the article for yourself here, but to save you time, here’s a topline of the three reasons Nestle listed:

  1. Old-style packaging makes foods seem unnatural.  Clear packaging works better for sales.
  2. Taste preferences are changing. Consumers are seeking complex flavor profiles imported from more sophisticated food cultures.
  3. Consumers want companies to pay more attention to their effects on climate change.

What?

I suppose all of these things are true and may even provide some helpful guidance to brands seeking to stay relevant in our rapidly changing food culture. But clear packaging and more complex flavor offerings hardly seem like the remedy for brands who are struggling. (I intentionally ignored her item on climate change as I agree with that point.)

There’s a food movement happening in our country, or as I like to see it, a food awakening. Sure, clear packaging does look clean and crisp (and gives a literal sense of transparency…something consumers are really looking for). But, the reason I think packaged food sales are declining is because consumers are skeptical of packaged food. How the food looks and tastes are bare minimums, and they are no longer enough. Not even close.

Consumers may be largely confused (e.g. I heard a statistic recently that the majority of consumers believe the claims “local” and “organic” mean the same thing), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t able to vote with their shopper dollars as they figure it all out. They are reconnecting to real food and realizing that the food they’ve been buying for the last few decades doesn’t make sense. Limitless levels of protein and zero fat? Fluorescent colors? Two-year shelf life? They may not yet understand how these things are possible, but they are learning quickly and not liking what they learn. I am hopeful that consumers will soon understand that they need to re-frame their expectations for packaged food.

Here’s my list for why packaged, processed food sales are declining:

  1. Consumers want minimally processed, natural ingredients even if that means a shorter shelf life.
  2. Even packaged food should follow the nutritional constraints of Mother Nature. No more extremes in nutritional profiles, colors or flavors.
  3. Everyone should do their part to support the health of people and the planet, especially big food companies. All food brands should be thoughtful in how they source, create and sell their food and should transparently share this information as a way to inform and educate consumers.

I heard another expert group predicting retail “Armageddon” for food brands that are unable or unwilling to make big changes to their product portfolios and positions. I really believe this is true and hope that big food brands will harness their immense power and influence to help lead our food system to a place that is better for people and planet health.

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Natural – The “False Advertising Industry”’s Biggest Breakthrough

When it comes to claims on food products is Organic the “real natural”? That’s what Organic Voices, a non-profit organization largely composed of USDA Certified Organic food brands, wants you to believe and their latest communication effort is using humor to prove its point.

You need look no further than an issue of USA Today or The New York Times to know that natural product claims have entered the Top 10 Most Wanted list for the Food Movement, right up there with McDonald’s Happy Meals and sugar sweetened beverages. It’s a drastic change from just a decade ago, when the term was a meaningful badge of quality and healthfulness. Unfortunately for devoted natural foodies, the cache of “natural” caught on a bit too well and as a result has been adopted by a seemingly infinite number of products out to cash in on the term and exploit the lack of criteria provided by our regulatory bodies for how to responsibly use it.

It’s unlikely Organic is the fix for the majority of natural food products on the market today. A more likely answer is the adoption of new labels (i.e. Non-GMO Project Verified, Gluten-Free, Top 8 Allergen-Free) to fill-in the grey space created by natural claims and, ultimately, a continued responsibility of the consumer to read the fine print (and then verify it).

But, as “natural” gets its vigilante justice in a process that is, at times, painful to watch, at least we can take a break to laugh about it.

The Natural Effect

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My Advice for Brands: Preach What You Practice

I was recently asked to contribute to a well-known business strategy blog, and wrote the following piece titled, “Preach What You Practice”.

Although I don’t see myself as a business strategist, I have had the benefit of working with some extremely talented strategists and highly successful brands over the years. Of the many lessons I’ve learned, there are two in particular that I find most powerful:

  1. Positive messages will always win over negative ones. You need look no further than a political attack campaign to understand this point.
  2. Consumers are drawn to authenticity. Ultimately, they can sense who’s walking the walk and who’s simply spinning a message.

I believe these lessons create the foundation of success in CPG (consumer packaged goods), and are especially crucial in the natural and organic food industry where the Food Movement is quickly approaching a tipping point in our country.

From my piece,

As the strategists and storytellers behind product brands, we are in a fascinating moment in history. And although practicing what you preach will always be the foundation of brand authenticity, we now have a unique opportunity to preach what we practice and help lead conversations and ultimately people and planet health to a better place.

You can read the whole piece here.

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Recipe for Irony: DIY High-Fructose Corn Syrup

Finally!  No more need to run to the packaged food isle of your local grocery store to get your high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) fix.  Thanks to a Parsons Design graduate student, you can now make your own!  All you’ll need is some sulfuric acid, latex gloves, protective eye goggles and, of course, Yellow Dent #2 corn.

For her thesis project, Maya Weinstein decided to engineer the secret ingredient to the industrialized food system in a domestic kitchen and film it for the world to see.  Maya’s motivation,

There are a lot of videos and articles on the web that talk about how scary and bad HFCS is for you, but there’s not really any information about what it actually is or how it’s made.  I saw a void there that I wanted to fill.

Bravo, Maya.  Clearly, Parsons is also teaching tenacity, as I can report looking up the recipe to HFCS is not as simple as a quick Google search.

A few years ago a few colleagues and I were tasked with a project to dig into the definition of natural for food.  Instead of taking the typical route of creating an “unacceptable ingredients” list (which is common for most companies and retailers like Whole Foods Market), my part of the investigation quickly navigated into the world of processing.  My reasoning: if you walk back far enough into the processing steps, almost all ingredients are natural…I mean, they must come from the earth at some point, right?  So, focusing on finished ingredients is not really the best way to understand naturalness.  Instead, we should make this determination based on what happens to the ingredient between leaving the ground and ending up in a finished food.

Unfortunately, the steps between ground and finished food are often tightly guarded under the guise of “proprietary information” and “trade secrets”.  This is likely why Weinstein identified a void in the internet ethos.  I cannot tell you the number of flow charts I received from ingredient suppliers in the process of my own research with incredibly vague steps like “washing” and “extraction”.  Trade secrets are all well and good except when the secret information is needed to make determinations of health and safety to people and planet health.

Thanks to its celebrity status, HFCS has not managed to stay behind the veil of industry protection.

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Walmart and Organic: Good, Bad or Ugly?

Walmart announced last week that they will roll out a massive expansion in organic offerings through the Wild Oats label at prices 25% below those of other national organic brands.

Like many people, I have conflicting emotions when it comes to Walmart (a company so big that if it were a country it would be the 25th largest based on GDP).  They are often in the press for wage disputes with employees and a seeming singular focus for profit at the expense of all else.  On the flip side, as the largest retailer in the world they also have incredible power to change things for the good.  In 2007, when Walmart mandated reductions in packaging materials for brands sold in its stores, it caused a massive reduction in packaging waste seemingly overnight.  Just in laundry detergent alone, reductions saved more than 125 million pounds of cardboard, 95 million pounds of plastics and 400 million gallons of water (and that was in a period of just two years).

At first pass the Wild Oats news sounds amazing.  On a theoretical level, I’ve always been a “Big Organic” supporter.  Yes!  Let’s shift organic from fringe to norm, raise the bar for farming in the US and bring organic to the masses.  If cost is the primary barrier to entry for consumers, who better than Walmart to change the model?

However, as I have more time to reflect on the announcement, I’m feeling less sure.  From a financial perspective, some of the cost premium associated with organic is due to lack of scale.  However, some of that premium is also due to things where the price can’t (or at least shouldn’t go down), things like labor costs.  So, will the massive expansion of organic production due to Walmart’s announcement create the “Big Ag” I’ve always hoped for, or a version of organic that is shoved into our conventional agriculture model with all its issues (inhumane treatment of animals, poor labor practices, disrespect for the soil) coming along for the ride?  USDA Organic Regulations certainly provide an elevated framework from conventional requirements, however, are organic regs fail safe enough to ensure the right things will be done when a player like Walmart decides to get involved in a massive way?

As usual, Marion Nestle wrote a fabulous piece yesterday that also weighs some of the pros and cons of this announcement.  Like her, I’ll be closely watching Walmart and the industry to see how things unfold.

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The Future of Food Labeling

Although small in number, the factors most likely to evolve food labeling laws in 2014 and beyond are rapidly increasing tensions among the various stakeholders in the food industry.  From unprecedented levels of litigation at the state level, to coordinated social media campaigns by special interest groups and a food movement built upon a foundation of increased transparency and simplicity, it seems a perfect storm may be brewing and, like it or not, government is going to have to move the evolution of food labeling laws up the priority list.  Here are some of my predictions for what we can expect to see in 2014 and beyond…

There are few housekeeping issues that are likely to be tidied up by government next year.  After many years of waiting, a FDA proposed rule to evolve the Nutrition Facts panel is likely to be released and will address a range of simple improvements such as adjusting serving sizes, daily values and creating space for additional nutrient declarations.  The Food Labeling Modernization Act has also been introduced to the House and, if passed, would establish a front of pack labeling system, require declaration of products containing caffeine and added sugar and institute a definition for natural.  Given the range of issues covered in this Act, I (along with most other experts) have very little confidence that it will pass.  Other minor improvements that I expect to see in 2014 include the removal of GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status from partially hydrogenated oils (which create trans fats) and an evolved whole grain content criteria statement.

I do not believe government will use 2014 to officially weigh in on some of the key issues fueling the current food movement, i.e. GMO and the definition of natural.  Inaction on these issues means the debate will continue to take place through litigation and social media.  Overall, government will continue their Band-Aid approach, tweaking current systems while standing on the sidelines of more fundamental issues.

Making predictions beyond 2014 is a bit trickier, but I have to believe that at some point the tension created from allowing issues to evolve on a state by state level and through increasingly more polarized special interest platforms will become so great that government will have no choice but to step into the fray.  My bets for what this may look like include:

  1. A sweeping overhaul to current nutrition labels. Nutrition labels are given so much real estate on pack and have so much opportunity to communicate, they absolutely have the ability to work harder than they do currently to communicate on issues consumers want information about.
  2. A national labeling standard for GMO.  Whether this will communicate a presence or absence is not as important as the fact that a national standard must be issued.  Similar to the path for organic, starting with state by state standards, a national standard for GMO labeling is inevitable.
  3. A definition of natural.  It is stunning that although “natural” has been one of the most used marketing terms in food for years, current guidance by FDA/USDA on this term is woefully lacking.  Although the term natural and the issue of GMO are not one in the same, they often travel together in debate and as a result we may see clarification of natural simply due to action on GMO.
  4. Increased restrictions around structure/function claims.  Versus continuing to allow the communication of both attributes and benefits, I see government evolving toward regulations seen in other developed countries in Europe and Canada where marketing communications are in large part restricted only to attributes.  In many ways, this change alone would solve many of the issues fueling current litigation and confusion at the consumer level.

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A Food Forest!

One of life’s simple pleasures has to be walking slowly through a beautiful forest, smelling the fresh air and greenery all around.  So just image how amazing the experience could be in a forest full of food!  This innovative project in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle, WA will create the nation’s first forest of edibles: seven acres of walnut and chestnut trees; blueberry and raspberry bushes; fruit trees, including apples and pears; exotics like pineapple, yuzu citrus, guava, persimmons, honeyberries, and lingonberries; herbs; and more.

Following the principle of permaculture, the plot will be carefully created in such a way that the soil, insects, and selection and location of plants will work in harmony with each other so that the land will be self-sustaining, similar to a natural forest.

Just imagine the possibilities for education if every city in our country had a food forest.  What a beautiful (and delicious) way to reconnect with real food and our planet.

The best part of this innovative project?  All fruit will be free and available for public plucking!

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