Can technology save breakfast?

Cereal companies, maligned for overprocessing, are now using the same techniques to put some nature back in the bowl… this lengthy article is not technical but is rather the challenging viewpoint of Corby Kummer, an American food industry critic, and appears in the prestigous Smithsonian Magazine.

What do foodies want? It’s not hard to answer, at least not for right-minded ones: locally raised food grown organically, completely unprocessed, delivered by hand or mule-driven cart.

As the author of one of the first books about the slow food movement, I certainly want that kind of food to be both affordable and widely available. But that’s not what most of the industrialized world can get. I break from my soul mates in believing in the power of evolving technology and, yes, the food industry to help people find and afford — and even like — food that new machines and processes can bring near its unprocessed, whole state.

Technology and food aren’t supposed to go together in any context but angry scorn. Technology and industry, in unholy collusion with all forms of media, are responsible for most every ill that food has anything to do with — particularly the US epidemic of childhood obesity, laid squarely at the doorstep of cheap, greasy fast food and sugary sodas. The food industry, in large part, denatures food, often to sickening effect. Think of “pink slime,” only the most recent outrage, with its bits of mechanically stripped scraps extruded into ammoniated filler that turns up in school-lunch hamburgers.

But maybe the food industry can re-nature products. Maybe it can make the best of the food we care about — whole grains, fiber, and vitamins, minerals and antioxidants — convenient and accessible. Sure, it’s unlikely. But not impossible. If technology, scale, industrialization and relentless marketing have been the forces of nutritional evil, maybe they can be the forces of nutritional salvation. The food industry, pretty much everyone recognizes, has a lot to answer for. Some forward-looking companies are already beginning to find some of the answers — and more need to follow.

Finding current examples isn’t simple. Huge corporations do manufacture “better-for-you” foods — a term they’re glad to use, though of course they don’t talk about “bad-for-you” foods. But good-for-you foods can be bad for the bottom line. Public commitments, like Pepsi’s to become more nutrition-minded and Wal-Mart’s to reduce sodium and added sugars and eliminate trans fats from many private-label foods, can curdle with a bad quarterly profit-and-loss statement. When Campbell’s retreated from a very loud commitment to cut salt in a wide range of its soups, admitting that its “health-inspired low-sodium push failed to lift sales,” as one report said, its stock price went up the next day.

One packaged, industrialized food that practically everybody buys is an exception: cereal.

From the time of its wacky origins, manufacturers have been glad to trumpet breakfast cereal’s wholesome attributes. It has also been the object of ridicule when it has gone too far in saying just how good it is for you, and for blatantly advertising to children. Advertising food to children under 12 is now considered second only to advertising cigarettes to minors. Children, the anti-advertising argument goes, are unable to judge what is good or bad for them; and the companies that have the money to buy TV time will spend it not telling children what’s actually good for them but pushing the highest-sugar and -sodium foods, which sets children up for impulse eating, unbalanced meals and obesity.

The cereal industry, however many black eyes it gets, still likes its healthy image. It might be the food industry least afraid of slow food types with prying eyes. And so it was that I found myself at a long white table in front of nine plastic bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch…..

 Smithsonian: Read the full article