Cancer cell

Food Bites 2011

Brilliant bits of food industry insights from the weekly newsletter

Food Bites… Cancer gets you when nothing else can

“…. the notion that we’re getting more cancer because of chemicals in our agriculture, medicine, food preparation and general environment, is persistent. Mention the word “cancer” in general conversation, and someone will solemnly opine that instead of increasing quality of life and health, modern life actually causes cancer. They’ll warn darkly about the dangers of antiperspirant spray, or mobile phones, or hair dye, or food preservatives, or milk.

It is true that some substances are known carcinogens, but none of these is among them. Carcinogens in the environment are a risk, but only one in 50 cancer deaths in the developed world can be attributed to environmental pollution caused by industrialisation.

Casting cancer as a symptom of modern society and using death as a rhetorical bludgeon to make people fear economic development is a reprehensible tactic. Yet, despite all the evidence that it’s wrong, alarmist myths remain stubbornly persistent.

In truth, economic development and scientific advances have combined to make us all healthier. When friends and family die of cancer – apparently before their time – that is because they didn’t die at a younger age of smallpox, polio, influenza or malaria. Because so many infectious diseases no longer kill us, we now succumb to degenerative diseases like cancer, heart disease and stroke. The simple problem is that we live long enough to get them.” 

Ivo Vegter, columnist on The Daily Maverick

Food Bites… Private label at the tipping point

private label“Grocers are taking advantage of the economic slump by pushing their own value-friendly private label products. Through mid-November, store brands accounted for 31.4% of food and beverage products purchased in the US, which is double 2010 numbers.

Retailers are realising their window of opportunity and utilising experienced marketing experts and strategies to get their products out there. Retailers are taking a lot more sophisticated approach to store brand innovation. This is five or six years in the making, and we are now seeing the tipping point.

“We need to be focused on building brands, not just introducing products,” says Kroger’s marketing expert, Linda Severin.

In the past, grocery chains feared the big name brand labels and laid in waiting, but now the tables are turning. ….analysts predict that store brands will continue to flourish in 2012. Bloomberg cites McKinsey who says that three out of four consumers who have switched to private label brands due to the recession have no intention to switch back when circumstances improve.” 

Ashley Cloninger, writing on Wall Street Cheat Sheet

Food bites… “Sensivores” rising

sensivores“A few years ago, I coined the term “sensivore” (a portmanteau for those of you who know their Lewis Carroll) to reference the “sensitive carnivore” movement I saw emerging. That trend continues today, with folks regularly raising issues related to the humane treatment of livestock, hens, etc. raised for slaughter, dairy and so on.

Today, more consumers—and by turn, the retail and foodservice manufacturing companies who serve those consumers—scrutinize each step from farm to fork and increasingly aspire to eradicate perceptually unnecessary abuses that exist in the process…

Manufacturers need to thoroughly vet suppliers to ensure that they mesh with existing corporate social and environmental responsibility parameters—and if you haven’t yet established those parameters, that should be your first step. Nobody should wait until regulators and activists make their supplier decisions for them in the heat of a national spotlight.

Practices that most consumers would consider inhumane are common in the industry, but continued pressure could very well change that—particularly when such prominent companies align themselves with humane-leaning concerns.” 

Douglas Peckenpaugh, culinary editor of Food Product Design

Food bites… Yesterday’s staples become today’s indulgences

staples“Denmark’s new “fat tax” on foods like butter and potato chips—anything with more than 2.3% saturated fat—is a reminder of just how much yesterday’s staple has become today’s indulgence. Our rising awareness of health and wellness issues is only part of it.

Consumers are grappling with consciences and costs: There’s the guilt over a product or service’s environmental or human impact and the impact of rising food prices. In the past year, for example, British and Hungarian consumers have seen weekly grocery bills increase by more than 6% (the EU average was 3.3%), and Americans have similarly seen the so-called “food at home” Consumer Price Index jumping by 6.3%.

As a result, things we previously consumed with little thought now feel more like a treat… While some people will rein in their consumption, others will rebel against the new constraints, monetary or otherwise. But “living it up” may soon mean simply a drive to the store (using pricey, CO2-emitting fuel) and buying a bag of chips.” 

Nick Ayala, writing on JWT Intelligence

Food bites… Why is gluten like BPA?

“It’s important that those with celiac disease and gluten intolerance avoid gluten. But it’s not necessarily important that anyone else avoid glutens. Nevertheless, “gluten-free” seems to be the latest in a line of label claims that attract consumers seeking more healthful foods, like “organic”, even if the facts don’t always point that way.

Consumers may perceive foods without gluten to be attractive as just ‘generally good-for-you’, or perhaps consumers concerned about major allergens (and remember, gluten is not one of them) think gluten-free foods are somehow better protected against allergen content. In short, “gluten-free” is an “f word”. “Fad”.

Food companies are responding, adding label claims about lack of gluten content and redesigning products… So why is gluten like BPA? Because both substances are victims of perception, not science. Industry and government representatives can often be heard to say that their decisions are guided by science. But perception, reputation, feelings in the marketplace — these are the trump cards.” 

Eric Greenberg, American Attorney-at-Law, writing on Packworld

Food bites… Michael Pollan changes his stance on HFCS

Pollan“I’ve done a lot to demonize it [HFCS]. And people took away the message that there was something intrinsically wrong with it. A lot of research says this isn’t the case. But there is a problem with how much total sugar we consume…. It shows the brilliance of the industry, which is always a couple of steps ahead of me. They started giving products made of real sugar health claims and [are] trying to make sugar look good. And that is a problem.

“We obsess about a small group of evil nutrients, and a small group of blessed nutrients, and every generation has an evolving cast of characters. And eventually, the fates of those nutrients will completely reverse.”

Michael Pollan, the author of best-selling books like In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Wielding huge influence among those who care about mindful eating, both in terms of health and sustainability, his repeated condemnation of high-fructose corn syrup as particularly harmful has helped damage the sweetener’s reputation over the past few years.

Food bites… Winners and losers in recessionary times

Food for thought“Though the recession officially ended in 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that Americans continue to spend less and save more. And yet a quick scan of local supermarket aisles will reveal that sales of Greek yoghurt, craft beer, and artisanal cheese are thriving. Why is our appetite for these specialty products growing even as our budgets decrease?

Because we’re cutting out even more expensive luxuries. As Americans eat out less, we’re willing to spend more for variety, convenience — maybe even health. The seemingly endless flavours, textures, and shapes of Greek yoghurt, artisanal cheese, and craft beer make us feel like we’re choosing from a new menu each time we go to the store — while we spend less time choosing from actual menus.

‘There’s never going to be a recession in eating. Just winners and losers,’ says Harry Balzer, vice President of the NPD Group, a consumer marketing research firm.” 

Cindy Yong, writing on BrowBeat, Slate’s culture blog

Food bites… This obsession with fat is really taxing

“For years, governments and health campaigners have been trying to make us afraid of what we eat, demanding that we only consume prescribed foods in prescribed amounts. It’s worked, to a degree. Even the most sceptical of people will have internalised some of this nonsense, turning their backs on foods they enjoy because they’ve been told that they’re deadly.

But clearly, in health campaigners’ minds, we’re not scared enough. So we must be cajoled and manipulated into further changing our diets, whether through food taxes, lectures about our children or fearmongering adverts. The aim is not, however, to make us slimmer or healthier – which is handy as such nagging and penalising doesn’t seem to make us any thinner anyway. No, the aim is to exercise influence over our lives, to give the powers-that-be a reason to be in power.”

Rob Lyons, writing in

Food bites… Time to rant (again) on the importance of packaging

packaging“Well, it’s time for my twice-a-year whine about the importance of packaging in luring consumers to a new product. Yes, I know it doesn’t matter how great the packaging is if the product inside doesn’t measure up taste-wise. Hey, we agree, the taste buds never lie.

That said, you still have to get people to reach for the product, and it is the packaging that will first catch their attention in the aisle. That package and the information on it. It’s funny, whenever I’m invited to make a trends presentation at a food company, most of the people I’m introduced to are in R&D, marketing and sales. Not that these groups aren’t important. But I hardly ever get to meet the people behind the packaging. Don’t know why, I just never do. It’s like they’re an afterthought.

But I will argue that the packaging folks are as important as any group in a food company, because they are the ones charged with making a new product stand out on the grocery shelf. If you get that packaging right, if it’s easy to pick out nuzzled alongside other products, easy to see and read, well, you’ve won the first leg of the battle to get that product in a shopping cart. After that, it’s R&D’s turn to impress, the ol’ taste-bud test. Bottom line? Without great packaging and palate-pleasing contents, sales and marketing won’t stand a chance.” 

Bob Messenger, publisher of The Morning Cup and foremost US food industry commentator

Food bites… A cure for obesity?

obesity“This mystification that obesity is caused by a lack of willpower or just eating the wrong foods is simply a misconception. There is so much social stigma attached to weight that we make a lot of value judgments. The effort in science is to peel back those layers of belief and try to understand things in an experimental, rational mode. Just as we have made progress against heart disease with statins and blood pressure drugs, we will find medications that can safely and substantially lower weight.” 

Joseph Bass, MD, PhD, Kettering Professor and Chief of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Molecular Medicine at Northwestern University

Food bites… Why do marketers sometimes feel the need to change the taste and flavour of iconic brands?

Earl Grey“Coca-Cola once famously (or infamously, depending on your perspective) tried it with original Coke and the subsequent uprising against “New Coke” stretched from coast to coast and forced the soft drink giant to quell the resistance by committing to the original recipe via Classic Coke. Today, New Coke is a footnote in history.

There is something similar taking place in the UK today, as Twinings is changing the original flavour of its Earl Grey tea. On this side of the Atlantic, it’s no big deal. Like who cares? But over there, it’s as if the queen shed the gown and pomp and circumstance for a public romp on the beach in a hot-pink two-piece…

Frankly, I don’t give a damn what Twinings does to Earl Grey, but then I’m not British. But I see all the signs of a rebellion similar to the one Coca-Cola created with New Coke. What Twinings should do is just leave the original flavour of Earl Grey Tea alone. Coca-Cola’s experience with New Coke ought to be a lesson for all: Quit screwing with icons!” 

Bob Messenger, editor The Morning Cup, foremost US food industry observer

Food bites… Conventional wisdom isn’t always wise

“Despite how much money and expertise is poured into nutrition research, we should still be skeptical about jumping to conclusions about our food and health. Our understanding is always shifting, and it’s often muddled by activists with a dog in the fight…

…Whatever the case, we should bet on ‘moderation’ remaining the cornerstone of any diet. Anybody who tells you a food or ingredient is going to harm you generally has an agenda, and not your health, to promote.” 

Rick Berman, OpEd in The Des Moines Register

Food bites… Food fight: why are we so passionate about what enters our bodies?

 “Why is that there can be such divergent views about basically the same body of evidence regarding organic and GM food?….

“Much has been written lately about the Theory of Argumentative Reasoning, the idea that human reason developed not as a tool for figuring out the truth but as a way to advance the fitness and survival of those who could win arguments and have things go their way.

“Winning arguments, then, is not about something as superficial as the truth. It’s a much more important battle about whose truth wins. Which may help explain why when the facts don’t work, we disparage those with whom we disagree, challenging their veracity, their honesty (funding), their intelligence.” 

David Ropeik, Harvard Extension School and author of ‘How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts’

Food bites… Food safety then and now

“In the face of a disease outbreak like the one in Europe, we should not lose sight of the fact that advances in science and medicine have had a dramatic and beneficial impact on reducing risk of contracting food-borne disease. Advances in numerous technologies have made this possible. These include: canning; autoclaving; refrigeration; microbiology; assay technology (including rapid pathogen assays); meat science; packaging; use of biotechnology; shipping; epidemiology; disease outbreak tracking; and public health monitoring and intervention!

“To the point of food safety…then versus now… we should be appreciative of the marvellous food safety systems that are in place, and extol the benefits of the scientific and technological advances that have made all of these possible. The food-borne outbreaks that occur are identified and dealt with quickly (especially versus prior decades) because of enhanced vigilance, application of science and public health monitoring.” 

Dr Terry Etherton, a Distinguished Professor of Animal Nutrition and Head of the Department of Dairy and Animal Science at Penn State University

Food bites… Swatting back at the Food Police

“In an unwarranted hystrionic rage Food Police captains like Marion Nestle lash out at McDonalds for co-opting the undefinable term “healthy” in their advertising (geez, maybe Food Police should have trademarked the nebulous term to protect it?).

Predictably, Food Police unleash their proud bigotry, railing against the “cheapness” of the food and the utter stupidity of the working classes who are believed to consume it. This is the special contribution of journalism professor Micheal “food is too cheap’ Pollan – a trendy loathing pity for the poor, obese clods who consume “cheap” food; a bigoted condemnation humanely, charitably stopping just short of blaming.

The blame, you see, is reserved for…wait for it…corporations. Evil, efficient, effective, enterprising corporations like McDonalds and hundreds of others who operate successfully and profitably while at the same time feeding and nourishing us all.” 

Doc Mudd, commenting on Food Safey News

Food bites…Caught between health and a hard place

“At one time, I was seduced by nutritionists saying I should be doing this or that and I launched 100% fruit desserts with vitamin C. They got into Sainsbury and Tesco, and they met all the nutritional criteria, but nobody bought them and they were delisted. I lost £200 000 but it taught me a lesson: my job is to make products that sell.” 

Paul Newberry, co-founder of UK-based fruit snack maker Stream Foods

Food bites…The tastless aim of the war on salt

“But why should campaigners and medics on a mission fret about such trivialities as the flavour of our food or our ability to make free choices? Theirs is a political vision in which health overrides all other considerations, where the extension of life rather than its quality is the be-all and end-all. And if they can save a few lives at the expense of making millions more lives a little bit worse by making food taste, well, less tasty, that is a price worth paying in their eyes.

“However, studies like the one published today on salt show that even in its own terms, the anti-salt campaign makes little sense. It either doesn’t save lives or it makes so little difference that it is hardly worth bothering with. Whether it is salt, fat, sugar or alcohol, we should take the lectures from our health guardians with a pinch of the white stuff.” 

Rob Lyons, deputy editor of His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, was published in October 2011

Food bites…Where are SA’s scientists?

“There’s a lack of visceral excitement about science and the thrill of discovery that affects the numbers of people who pursue scientific careers – and that has real impacts on how societies and economies respond to the future. For example, the US, the UK and Australia have about 50 to 60 scientists per 100 000 people, while a country like Japan has about 100 per 100 000. And as for South Africa? Just ten per 100 000. The worry for South Africa is how such a low level of scientific competence is going to affect this country’s economic future. What is being done to generate more scientific training in South Africa is also a matter of concern for me, as it should be for everyone else in the country.” 

Chris Smith, the Naked Scientist, speaking at the Grahamstown ThinkFest (and slightly paraphrased from an article in The Daily Maverick)

Food bites…Innovating behond consumers’ imaginings

“With the tremendous turbulence and the speed with which industries are changing today, you can’t just sit around and wait. While high levels of profits from existing businesses are a must, companies need to be reinvesting in a consistent fashion to create new businesses, and new products, and to shape the pattern of market evolution. They need to imagine new markets for tomorrow, and to build new core competencies that will give them an advantage in those markets.” 

The late CK Prahalad, influential business thinker and writer

Food bites… Fight the food fight!

 “If people are afraid of GMOs, of science, of the food you are trying to make, you need to tell your story and go out and educate people, fight on the internet.

“And get out of your lab! If you can’t explain what you’re doing you’re not going to get to do it for long. Get off the back foot and play the lunatics at their own game …” 

Stephen Specter, New Yorker columnist and science writer

Food bites… Time to rethink anti-corporate sentiment

“You see, it’s easy to hate a big company, with a big brand name. McDonald’s makes you fat. Walmart makes you stupid. Pfizer makes you addicted to uppers, of all sorts. Shell makes you have three-headed double-gendered babies. If you’re looking for bogeymen, just pick one from a billboard.

Big companies with big brands to protect catch a lot of flak. But in casting big companies as evil pillagers and exploiters, critics fail to recognise that they’re generally staffed by people. Ordinary people like you and me. People with the same passions and concerns and emotional investment in the welfare of the planet and the prosperity of its people.”

Ivo Vegter, Daily Maverick columnist. Read more

Food bites… The unrelenting pressure on the food industry

“… good will never be good enough for the critics among activist groups and researchers. That’s why I believe, no matter how much the food and beverage industry bends to accommodate its critics, it will never be enough. The forces of activism will just step up their critical oversight and put even more pressure on the industries they have targeted. For the food industry, the path chosen for them by anti-industry forces is clear — way less processed food and a movement towards a more natural, more organic, more raw, more vegetarian lifestyle in America. Please, tell me why am I wrong?” 

Bob Messenger, foremost US food industry commentator

Food bites… They hypocrisy of food sermons by the rich and famous

“Penny wise and pound foolish” and “Do as I say do, not as I do” are adages that come to mind with the latest spate of media fawning over England’s King-in-Waiting Charles of Windsor and his crusade to save us from ourselves through organic farming, alternative energy, and more thrifty lifestyles…

To his credit, Charles is reported to have an organic farm on one of his vast estates — which, media sources say, has never turned a profit. But then, when one has millions of dollars in yearly income from royal holdings, one can jolly well grow all the organic parsnips and kale one wishes, and hang the cost.

It is one thing for Charles and assorted ultra-wealthy entertainment and sports stars for whom the cost of food has no relevance, to espouse salvation through a manure-fertilized, pesticide/GMO-free, windmill-generating world.

But to preach to the average working family that they should make do with less, while trying to stretch food dollars as best they can as supermarket prices continue skyward, is utter hypocrisy. 

Hembree Brandon, Farm Press Blog Read more

Food bites… Our trust in the food industry

“Of course, the problem is that, with food, one never really knows whether the food about to be eaten will cause illness, injury, or death. It is not as if it is feasible to drag a microbiologist around with us every time we go food shopping so that we can test for pathogens before putting that package of ground beef in our shopping cart.

Ultimately, buying food and eating it is, and always will be, a matter of trust – or strategic denial.  Indeed, when we are no longer able to trust the food available in the marketplace, then buying food becomes a matter of insecurity and fear. When will the next time bomb go off? And who will be the next casualty?” 

Denis Stearns, writing on Food Safety News. Read more

Food bites…The future of food

“Everyone has to work together and we all have to recognise the principle that Mahatma Gandhi observed so incisively when he said that we may utilise the gifts of nature just as we choose but in her book, the debts are always equal to the credits.

It is, I feel, our apparent reluctance to recognise the interrelated nature of the problems and therefore, the solutions that lie at the heart of our predicament and certainly, on our ability to determine the future of food. How we deal with this systemic failure in our thinking will define us as a civilization and determine our survival.” 

The Prince of Wales, in the keynote address to the “Future of Food” Conference in Washington DC, July 2011

Food bites…BPA in can linings – a storm brewing!

A raft of the most respected food safety regulators and scientific committees across the globe have all declared that use of BPA in food contact materials at current levels is safe. So end of argument, right? Well wrong, because there are enough dissenting voices in the scientific community that believe BPA does pose a threat to fan the flames of consumer unease…. Momentum is a dangerous thing… when anxiety spreads among consumers and confidence drains away, industry has to listen – no matter what regulators in Brussels, Washington DC or Sydney say.

The only issue, it seems, is whether metal and plastic packaging players are ready for the tidal wave that looks to be coming and when it will break? Will they surf the wave or be engulfed by it? 

Rory Harrington, writing in Food Production Daily

Food bites… So what is a “clean label”?

“A clean label gives consumers sufficient information to enable them to make informed decisions leaving them in no doubt as to the contents of the product. According to this definition a ‘cleanly labeled’ product does not therefore need to be manufactured with ‘natural’ ‘additive-free’ or ‘store-cupboard’ ingredients as some suggest because the emphasis is focused on providing consumers transparent and clear information empowering them to express their consumption preferences.

“For example, consumers may be perfectly happy to eat or drink products containing artificial ingredients. The point of clean labelling is therefore simply to inform shoppers to enable them to better express their consumption preferences.” 

Matthew Incles, market intelligence manager for Leatherhead Food Research, UK

Food bites… The cult of the leader

“The modern leader is egotistic, blind to their own faults, surrounded by people created in their own image and committed to actions driven more by the need to enhance their self-image than by anything else. We moved from ranking companies and their performance to personalizing such comparative exercises by focusing on their CEOs, as though the CEO was the defining differentiator without which the organization would have not achieved their success.” 

Prof Christopher Bones, in his new book, The Cult of the Leader

Food bites… Managing business in an increasingly volatile world

“Some years back I asked Gavin Neath, then chairman of Unilever UK and now Unilever’s senior vice president for sustainability, whether life in food and drink manufacture was more complicated now than in the past, his response was: ‘It’s a conceit of every generation of managers to believe the change they are managing is greater than their predecessors.’

I’m sure he was right. But, given the speed at which catastrophic developments around the world can impact on what we do combined with the speed with which social networking is influencing public reaction to these events, it is a wise manager that has contingency plans in place to help cope with the unexpected.

Perhaps we should keep in mind the words of French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” 

Rick Pendrous, editor of Food Manufacture Magazine, UK

Food bites… SA’s food security time bomb

“Food insecurity is more widespread than commonly imagined, also in urban areas. Recent research at the University of Cape Town found that on average about four in five residents in poor areas of southern African cities lack reliable access to nutritious food. Long term trends related to soil degradation, rising oil prices and climate change risk exacerbating this situation.” 

Ralph Hamann, associate professor and research director at the UCT Graduate School of Business and chair of the Southern Africa Food Lab initiative. Read more

Food bites… All eyes on Africa

“The continent is now being compared to China in the early nineties — as a place of opportunity.  You could characterise it as the final gold rush for the large consumer products companies of the world, because where are they going to go after Africa? There’s nowhere left.” 

David Murray of Ernst & Young