All posts tagged planet health

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.


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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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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Image by Rusty Clark

Transparency is the New Marketing

I write this post while anxiously waiting for confirmation on the passage or failure of WA State Initiative 522 that would require labeling of food products using GMO ingredients sold in the state.  Numbers are still rolling in from yesterday’s vote and even though many say it doesn’t look good, it’s still officially too close to call.  It’s no surprise the race is close – it was another David and Goliath battle, similar to the version in my own home state of California last year.  The No on 522 Campaign spent a record-setting $22M to defeat the bill.  The fact that the race is close given this statistic alone is in some way a sign of success for advocates of GMO labeling regardless of the ultimate outcome.

As I’ve said in previous posts on the issue of GMO, questions of technology and safety are, in my mind, less significant to the issue of transparency.  GMO may be good, it may be bad (if my opinion counts, I think it’s probably a mix of both), but without transparency about where it’s being used we cannot engage in a fair, thoughtful and productive debate.

To me, GMO is just an excellent poster child for the issue we are really talking about here; transparency.  Because GMO isn’t the only issue to be concerned about in our food supply today.  We could be talking about the additives and chemicals used to grow and process our foods, or the impact of concentrated animal farming operations on the health of the planet or the fallacy consumers are led to believe that anything is possible when it comes to nutrition and calories.  How we grow, transport, process and market our food is shrouded in a seemingly blissful ignorance fueled almost entirely by a lack of transparency.

Just yesterday, Mark Bittman published an article in the New York Times exposing the purchase of the world’s largest pork producer, based in the United States, by the Chinese.  This article is a perfect illustration of the highly complex and global food system we now function within, largely under the radar of most Americans.  This purchase has many benefits for the Chinese.  For the United States, the benefits are singular in focus.  There is certainly a short-term economic security to be gained, but at the cost of perpetuating a food system that will most certainly speed the decline of people and planet health.

Earlier this week, I had a chance to speak with the head of communications and marketing of the leading organic produce supplier in the country and she had a great line, “transparency is the new marketing”.  Although food brands seem to be moving, both willingly and unwillingly, at varying rates of speed toward this truth, it is happening.  And what’s powerful about this shift is that it will force a change in our food supply, because, marketers rarely share bad news.  So, if telling the straight story is what’s in vogue, getting the food production “house”, so to speak, in order is going to be required.

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Thank you, Stonyfield, for your example and image.

How I’m Moving Forward in the GMO Food Debate

A few weeks ago I wrote a post, The Genetically Modified Food Debate, which introduced a series of articles by Nathanael Johnson, a writer that’s taken on the big task of sorting through the GMO debate to provide the straight story on where the science, politics and implications to people and planet truly stand.

As someone who’s followed the topic of GMO for many years, I’ve often wished for a series of articles just like this.  It’s a heroic effort and having the opportunity to go on an exploration of sorts through these articles has helped me crystalize what I believe are the biggest issues and necessary next steps in the GM food debate.  If you’d like to read Johnson’s series, you can start here and find links to subsequent posts at the bottom of each article.

As I’ve mentioned before, I believe that as humans we are hard-wired to experiment, research and evolve our understanding of the world.  Given what I know of evolution and farming, biotechnology seems like a logical place for exploration in science.  It’s in the application of this science that things can get complicated.  My sense is that, like most things, the best scenario for people and planet as it relates to GMO is toward the center from either side of the extreme.

My primary concern about genetically engineered food crops is not so much about the study of biotechnology in plants, but the ripple effect the application of these crops is having on current farming practices and our global food community.  Here are some of the things I find most troubling:

  • GMO are often bred for resistance to herbicides and pesticides.  As a result, weed-killing herbicide use on genetically engineered corn, soybeans and cotton increased by 383 million pounds in the U.S. from 1996 to 2008.
  • GM crops support the practice of mono-cropping (growing only one type of agricultural product in a large area of land, year after year).  This approach has an economic benefit in that it simplifies farming operations and decreases labor costs.  However, mono-cropping depletes nutrients from the soil and decreases crop-yields over time creating a need for increased synthetic fertilizer use.  Although there may be a short-term economic gain, there’s a larger long-term cost to the health of the planet.
  • Implementation of GMO and mono-cropping practices in developing countries has impacts that go beyond just human and planet health.  Traditional knowledge about how to farm the land, what indigenous plants provide nutrients of need and seed saving techniques to maintain biodiversity…all this wisdom that is passed from generation to generation may be lost and, maybe more importantly, be seen as inferior to modern conventional methods.

The biggest hurdle to finding a path forward that is acceptable to groups on both sides of this issue seems to sit within science.  Through Johnson’s articles, it’s clear that the methods we have to determine safety and the impact to human and planet health are flawed.  The questions we’re asking through testing simply do not provide the answers many people are seeking to understand.  This is an issue that’s much bigger than just GMO, but yet one that is effectively stalling the ability of the food community to find consensus about how to move forward.  Until we evolve both the methods of testing and what we’re testing for, I don’t see how we’re going to come together.

So, what to make of all this?  Well, as for me, I plan to keep looking and hoping for an evolution in testing, particularly in the form of support from our government to investigate new approaches to better answer the valid concerns around GMO’s impact to people and planet health.  In the meantime, as we continue to navigate our way to better answers, I believe the right thing to do is provide as much transparency and through that, education, as possible.  We don’t have the answers, and until such a time that we do and this matter is settled, why not let people make their own decisions?  Let’s label GM foods, raise awareness and hopefully get to a place where we can argue toward solutions.

If you’re interested in doing some digging of your own into this issue, Johnson also did a recent article that provides a “Cliff’s Notes” version of some of the most popular books on GMO.  You can read this article here.

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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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Grains of Change with Kashi and the Sundance Channel

Going through my archives last night, I came upon this commercial I had the opportunity to do with Kashi and the Sundance Channel a few years ago.  Grains of Change was a Kashi and Sundance series that profiled seven leaders in the natural food community across the U.S. who are dedicated to promoting healthy lifestyles and greater connections to the natural world.  As Kashi’s natural food and lifestyle expert, I was honored to introduce this series and these individuals.

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Join the Global “Eat-In” Happening Today!

162 million Americans have a chronic disease that stems from poor diet and lifestyle choices and 1.5 billion people are now overweight.  Raising just one pound of beef requires 2000 gallons of water and produces 58 times more greenhouse gases than one pound of potatoes.  As surprising as it may seem, what you put on your fork is more impactful to your personal health and the health of the environment than the car you drive.

Imagine the impact we could have on human and planet health if we all chose to purchase only fresh, whole, sustainably-raised, mostly plant-based food.  And imagine if we cooked and ate all the meals made with that beautiful food at home with friends and loved-ones.

Today is Global “Eat-In” Day.  It’s a day to cook and eat real food with family and friends at home for just one day.  Initiated by Dr. Mark Hyman, today is a great opportunity to test how it feels to be mindful about what we eat and take just a little more care with our food choices.

Here’s my meal plan for the day with my family:

Breakfast: Scramble made with homemade tortillas and farmer’s market eggs.  Smoothie made with organic plain yogurt, banana, kale and blueberries.

Snacks: Raw mix of walnuts and almonds.  Fresh berries.

Lunch: Tacos made with homemade tortillas and beans, lettuce, green onions, guacamole and organic plain yogurt

Dinner: Wild salmon tossed with romaine, chopped apples, sunflower seeds and a tahini-based dressing

I hope you’ll join me.  Cheers to the future health of people and planet!

Thank you Civil Eats for the statistics I used at the beginning of this post.

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Image by Chris Fritz

Health Status of Mother Earth? Look No Further Than the Honeybee.

For many of us, our understanding of the role honeybees play within our ecosystem is little at best, completely unknown at worst.  If you live in a city, you probably don’t even see them that often, and if you do they are a pest, we shoo them away for fear of being stung.

The truth about bees is that they are integral to the health of our planet and especially important when it comes to our global food supply.  As Marion Nestle pointed out in a recent post on this issue, bees pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of the world’s food.  Please read that stat again…it’s stunning.

Briefly, here’s a summary of the state of affairs for bees:

  • In the 1970s there were approximately seven million hives in the United States, today there are just two million (that’s about 250 billon fewer bees)
  • In some cases there is up to a 90% death rate within hives and total colony loss during winter months is up to 30% (from 10% in previous years)

The cause behind these rapid declines is not formally known although factors such as changes in diet (they are sometimes fed high fructose corn syrup) and exposure to pesticides such as neonicotinoids are suspected.  The New York Times just ran a piece this morning that summarizes some of this debate.

Another debated topic is conventional handling practices such as the smoking techniques beekeepers use to calm hives.  Research has demonstrated that this technique can hinder bees’ sense of scent (they use scent to navigate) for up to ten days, leaving them disoriented and disabled.

If the information I’m sharing here is new to you, I hope that you are concerned.  I definitely am.

If you are interested in learning more as well as connecting to institutions who are advocating for more protection and research for honeybees, check out the following links:

A sincere thank you to the Rodale Institute, who provided much of the background information for this post.

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