Beyond “better for you”: the next big leap in packaged food

Just Food’s US columnist Victor Martino sets out why he believes there will be a paradigm shift in the approach to healthier foods….

There’s never been a more opportune time here in the US [or anywhere else in the world] for packaged food companies to make their products healthier, asserts Martino.

Data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 40% of Americans are obese and many struggle with comorbidities such as Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer.

The ultra-processed foods (UPFs) that make up the bulk of the US diet are among the major culprits, according to an increasing number of government, academic institution-affiliated and independent nutrition experts…

There’s also majority acceptance today among consumers, the media and public interest groups that obesity and negative health outcomes have risen alongside the consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Read more about the controversy swirling around UPFs and the NOVA classification system, as Martino elucidates.

He goes on to say that based on his research, the majority of US consumers want to buy and eat healthier food, including healthier ultra-processed food products. 

A recent survey conducted by the Harris poll is illustrative of the latter. More than two-thirds of respondents (67%) said they are willing to pay more – up to $3 more in some cases – for healthier, ultra-processed foods.

The opportunity for Big Food, he explains…

My analysis is that we’re at an important inflection point in the US packaged foods market.

First, the tide has shifted from primarily defining healthy foods as those produced using organic growing methods or non-GMO – which has been the case for decades – to defining healthy foods as those that are processed the least.

Heart disease, for example, is the number one killer in the US, not pesticide or GMO poisoning. Diet and exercise matter most when it comes to longevity and quality of life.

This shifting tide will eventually lead to a paradigm shift in the industry. This new paradigm is the producing and marketing of healthier packaged food products across the board, including healthier ultra-processed foods.

It’s also going to result in the elevation of various product types to higher positions in their respective categories. In fact, it’s already happening. In the snack food category, for example, nuts and popcorn, both healthy snacks, are on the ascendancy. Peanut butter and almond butter, both deemed heart-healthy foods, are booming.

And when it comes to alternative proteins, it’s not plant-based meat, which in most cases is highly-processed, that’s on the rise – quite the opposite is the case – but rather less-processed foods like beans, legumes,  mushrooms and the like, including branded products in various categories made from these ingredients.

The next big leap in the packaged foods industry is going to be the creation of significantly healthier products, including healthier ultra-processed foods.

I’m not talking about the around-the-edges approach we call “better-for-you” either. Instead, I’m talking about a truly paradigm-shifting approach to healthier packaged foods. We’re seeing green shoots of what I describe above, for example, in the food as medicine movement among a handful of big brand and emerging brand packaged foods companies.

Major packaged food companies have historically ceded nearly all of the major paradigm-shifting developments – organic, premium, better-for-you, etc. – to early-stage and emerging businesses, instead getting in the game via M&A.

The opportunity I describe – the creation of a new class of truly healthier packaged foods, including healthier ultra-processed foods – is too big for the majors to avoid. They are the companies that make most of the ultra-processed foods and therefore are the ones in the crosshairs. Those crosshairs will only get sharper.

GLP-1 drugs have the potential to turn the packaged foods business on its head, particularly if they’re approved for direct use for weight loss. Usage will then rise because the cost will come down and private health insurance, Medicare and Medicaid will cover their cost.

The damning scientific evidence that ultra-processed foods are a major contributor to obesity and all the health ills it brings people is eroding consumer faith and trust in the packaged food companies behind them.

The business case for creating healthier packaged foods, including healthier ultra-processed foods, is there. The major companies that become the first-movers will be the winners.

It’s also where the big opportunity for start-ups is, rather than in cell and plant-based meat, which is where investors continue to invest way too much money.

Developing truly healthier versions of what Americans like to eat is the right thing to do from a public health perspective. It’s also a prescription for profit.