All posts tagged transparency

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

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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Image by QUARTZ

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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Image by Scorpions and Centaurs

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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Image by Michael


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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Image by Alternative Heat

The GMO Debate: Does it Really Matter?

If you’ve read any of my posts on GMO, you know that I’ve been following a Grist reporter for the past few months, Nathaniel Johnson, on his deep dive into the science and issues behind GMO.  Over the many years I’ve been tracking this issue, I’ve often wished I could do what Johnson is doing…really pick apart the arguments in search of the un-spun, facts only truth.  It’s a heated topic and finding the straight story through all influencing factors and misguided science is a daunting task.  I think Johnson’s done a fabulous job.  He’s a brave guy.

His article last week, What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters, got my attention.  My initial thought was, “Crap!  He’s giving up.”  Fortunately, that’s not the case, and how he got to his conclusion that none of it matters is pretty compelling.

He argues that the debate isn’t actually about GMO, otherwise, due to the wide-range of differences in modification and application, we’d be debating about individual GM plants.  I couldn’t agree more and have often been frustrated due to the same observation.  Genetic engineering is used in a range of applications: for the creation of medicines, to support the biodegradation of plastics, and others.  It’s not just about creating corn and soy plants that can withstand increasing levels of toxic herbicides.

The real truth is the topic of GMO is important because it’s facilitating a much larger philosophical debate about things that may only be loosely connected to the actual subject of genetic engineering.  As Johnson states,

People care about GMOs because they symbolize corporate control of the food system, or unsustainable agriculture, or the basic unhealthiness of our modern diet. On the other side, people care about GMOs because they symbolize the victory of human ingenuity over hunger and suffering, or the triumph of market forces, or the wonder of science.

This assessment certainly fits the bill for me.  I’ve lost sleep worrying about our country’s unsustainable mono-cropping approach to agriculture (yes, truly).  I feel sick when I think about the subsidization of a select number of crops that creates mass quantities of cheap, un-healthy food and as a result is literally fueling the growing obesity epidemic, not only in the United States, but in all the other developing countries that emulate America.  As I’ve stated before, I think there’s a role for GMO and the best way to move forward is thoughtfully and transparently (i.e. labeling).  Honestly, if I had to choose between getting rid of the current subsidization practices for corn and soy and GMO, I think I’d choose the former.  It’s a silly “either/or” question, but it does confirm to me that Johnson is spot on about GMO not really being about GMO.

So, does it really matter where we net out on GMO?  Johnson thinks not (you should really read his article to understand why).  I’m not sure I’m ready to agree completely.  However, even if GMO isn’t the real issue, maybe using it as a decoy for what we’re really debating is an acceptable if not dysfunctional way to create positive change.  Whatever works, right?

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Image by Steve Rhodes

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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Image by Tambor Acai

Whole Foods Market and Monsanto – Really, People?

Since the beginning of the year, Whole Foods Market has been dealing with a set of rumors all relating to a relationship with Monsanto. One rumor is that that they have been purchased by the multinational agriculture biotech company. Another is that the two companies are at least cavorting together to support the deregulation of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops such as alfalfa in the United States. My immediate reaction to these rumors is to laugh. I mean, really. Really? Would anyone who knows anything about these companies actually believe such nonsense?

But here’s the thing that really irritates me about these rumors…Whole Foods Market is STILL dealing with them, more than two months after publicly addressing and dismissing them on their blog and, more importantly, after making one of the most profound public commitments to addressing the GMO labeling issue a retailer has ever made.

I’ve seen this type of attack on a major brand play out multiple times in past years and it really bothers me. Despite what your feelings may be of large companies such as Whole Foods Market or even Wal-Mart, they have one thing that is undeniable – power to change the system. When, in 2006, Wal-Mart announced a commitment to sell more organic food, awareness and availability of organic expanded dramatically. Similarly, when Whole Foods Market announced this past March that beginning in 2018 they will require products in their stores to label if they contain GMO, they triggered a ripple effect in the food community that will result in more organic farmland, more organic food options and maybe even federal action on the issue of GMO labeling.

In reality, the people and groups behind the Whole Foods Market and Monsanto rumors are probably very small in number and do not impact the vast majority of those who care about natural and organic food options.  However, a small group, if organized, can demand a lot of time and attention from the company/brand to manage. What if, instead of forcing Whole Foods Market to spend time strategizing about how best to squelch nonsense rumors, they were given the opportunity to focus on the best ways to support healthy, sustainable food options for their consumers and our country?

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Image from Whole Foods Market Blog

American Eggs Illegal in British Supermarkets?

The USDA requires egg producers to wash eggs and keep them cool…seems like a good thing, right?  Maybe not.  As Mother Nature would have it (surprise, surprise) an egg shell kept completely dry and un-sanitized retains a natural barrier that protects the contents inside.  So much so that eggs treated in this way do not even require refrigeration and can remain at room temperature for weeks.

This fascinating article, written by Nadia Arumugam, Contributor to Forbes, compares the egg treatment standards between the U.S. and E.U. and highlights some incredible differences.  I always find it interesting when in our attempts to protect we ultimately over-look the inherent intelligence of nature.

Personally, this just further confirms my belief that farmer’s market eggs are better.   The dark yellow yolks, the firmness of the egg when it drops into the pan, the rich flavor…Next time I go to my local market I’m definitely going to ask my egg vendor about his handling practices to see if I can get myself some “dirty” eggs!

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Image by Perfectly Natural