Packaged “All-Natural” Foods

Packaged, so-called “all-natural” foods. They’re coming at you — fast and strong. As this recent article in the Chicago Tribune points out, all the big players in processed food manufacturing are jumping on the bandwagon of “all-natural” and “healthy” foods:

The companies that introduced products such as Doritos, Miracle Whip, Butterfinger and the venti caramel Frappuccino now maintain that the future lies in the health and wellness category. A wave of products expected to hit grocery stores in the next year will raise the ante for shoppers’ attention and compete for their trust. What constitutes “healthy” will ultimately be decided by consumers at the cash register.

Apparently the big wigs are starting to notice that health-conscious consumers are chipping away at their market share. So, they’re making changes. They’re making processed foods “healthier” in the hopes of appealing to this growing segment of the population with the allure of products that “align with organic principles” without actually carrying the heavy price tag of organics.

While I’m glad that the average American is starting to demand healthier food options, I’m actually laughing at the food industry’s response (in a sad, “I-pity-you” sort of way):

In a recent interview, Nestle CEO Paul Bulcke expressed concern about the demonization of food in America.

“We are thinking increasingly in wrong dimensions where we see food as bad, and in French they have an expression, ‘le poison c’est la dose,’ and you would say, ‘the poison is the quantity,’” he said, simultaneously acknowledging that Nestle has “a role to play” in responsible eating.

And while the formula for profitable health food has yet to be discovered, Bulcke maintains that it can be done. Basically, he said, the process is about making “food pleasurable with more goodies and less baddies.” And if that can be accomplished, he said, healthy eating will also be a profitable business. (source)

Of course, as businessmen, it’s all about profit — about discovering the formula for profitable health food. It’s about figuring out a way for the packaged food industry to cash in on this growing trend towards more natural foods.

NEWSFLASH, Mr. Bulcke: IT’S NOT POSSIBLE. By definition, a packaged food that is cheap enough to be manufactured in bulk, durable enough to be shipped across the country or around the world, and stable enough to last for weeks, months, or even years on shelves IS NOT “NATURAL.”

Real Food decomposes. As Michael Pollan has pointed out on numerous occassions, there’s a reason why the Twinkie on his shelf is still as fluffy and soft today as it was more than 2 years ago when he first pulled it out of its packaging. It’s not food! If the bacteria and other microbial life on this planet won’t eat it, neither should we.

Mr. Bulcke says people like me “see food as bad.” Nope. People like me see FAKE FOOD as bad — the kind he manufactures and sells.

Ultimately the Chicago Tribune article points out that the definition of “healthy” is up for grabs. Is it reducing salt? Lowering fat? Reducing ingredients? Avoiding artificial-ingredients so we can slap an “all-natural” label on something?

And therein lies the flaw behind all packaged and processed food production — this belief that with a judicious application of food science, we can actually manufacture fake foods to make them healthier than the real thing.

While I’m ecstatic that the movement towards Real Food has gone mainstream enough to warrant an industry response like this, I’m also saddened that the big food manufacturers don’t really have any hope of getting the underlying message. We want Real Food! Not edible food-like substances created in laboratories instead of kitchens.

So, what will your response be to the billions of dollars worth of “all-natural” and “healthy” packaged foods being introduced by PepsiCo, Kraft, Starbucks, and Nestle be this coming year? Will you be thankful that you can finally get a “healthier” version of your favorite junk foods? Will you avoid the packaged foods like the plague?

(photo by Bill Stevenson)

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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.
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44 Responses to Packaged “All-Natural” Foods
  1. Anna
    April 14, 2011 | 6:05 pm

    I’m of the opinion that junk food is still junk food, regardless of whether it has the label “organic” or “natural” on it. If it isn’t something I can make in my kitchen, then I don’t buy it. For me, this includes things like refined sugar- because I certainly will never go to the effort to refine the sugar for myself. Therefore, I don’t buy products with sugar in them. The only prepared or packaged foods we buy anymore are cheese, meat, and (rarely) bread. Everything is vegetable, as I raise my own chickens for eggs, and goats for milk. This year I’m working on the meat.

  2. The Table of Promise
    April 14, 2011 | 8:43 pm

    Absolutely true. Especially the part about how microbes won’t eat it, so why should I….That always gets me. Companies like to hide behind ‘moderation’ for legal protection. And to a certain extent they are right, it is up to us to eat healthfully. We must change the food culture in this country. And if the food companies won’t help us, we are just going to have to talk louder.

  3. Pure Mothers
    April 15, 2011 | 4:26 am

    Amen! I am still of the philosophy in our home – 80-90% homemade, 10%-20% convenience – but not junk. Convenience means a package of frozen peas or a store bought organic pot pie for those in-a-pinch times! Organic already baked bread or jam (if I haven’t canned – which I didn’t last summer)

    My son has asked what the McDonalds place is -when a playmate talked about it. I told him and now he says – McDonalds has yucky food that ‘s not organic! Love my kid!

    • KristenM
      April 15, 2011 | 9:21 am

      We’re not at 80% homemade, although we used to be. I’ve had to buy quite a few things from the store that I used to make — things like sprouted grain bread and nixtamilized corn tortillas for my boys. But these are our “convenience” foods.

  4. Jan
    April 15, 2011 | 6:45 am

    Although I agree with your opinion of the new ostensibly “healthful” snacks these huge multinationals will be introducing, I disagree with your demand for “real food” from them; it’s simply not realistic. Demanding Kraft to start creating real food is like demanding Lockhead Martin to start making automobiles – it’s not really what they do, although there are similarities.

    The fact is, their huge factories and supply chains are geared to create and transport artificial shelf-stable food. A switch to “real food” amounts to a complete overhaul of the system, and that doesn’t really make sense. Because of this, I don’t see these huge companies changing what they do in any meaningful way.

    What we really need is a change in food culture. Consumers need to be educated about these artificial denatured foods; it’s as simple as that.

    • KristenM
      April 15, 2011 | 9:31 am

      Jan — I agree! It’s why I said that it is impossible. I don’t expect these guys to be able to make mass-produced, shipped, shelf-stable “real food.” By definition, real food can’t be all these things. It could, perhaps be one or two of them, but not all three at once.

  5. Deoxy
    April 15, 2011 | 8:24 am

    I agree with Pure Mothers. Our “convenience” food consists of some frozen vegetables, plus canned beans for when I just didn’t remember to get dried beans soaking the night before. We are also required to buy packaged food when it is our turn to provide snack for ECFE class. Living in a suburb, I can grow a lot of my own vegetables, but I still need to visit the grocery store regularly. It would be nice to have better options available. For example, we love cream, but there is no organic cream available near us that is not made useless by ultra-pasteurization.

  6. Heather Stamets via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 9:59 am

    Thanks for the article! You always provide wonderful information!

  7. Adrienne Boyd Gable via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:00 am

    Nothing healthy about a twinkie

  8. Kyla Festerly via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:00 am

    It’s bad. These companies have so much money that it is possible for them to do the minimum requirements and not really change much of their production to “legally” label their foods as organic, natural, free range, hormone or antibiotics free. It’s just like the major chicken warehouse that adds a small door and is now legally allowed to label their chickens as “free range.” Same principle.

  9. Gini Shackelford via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:01 am

    And you know they’ll still be chock-full of GMOs. Ugh.

  10. Tammy Lee Rodriguez via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:01 am

    if it comes in a package… i stay away from it

  11. Margaret Wolf via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:02 am

    Great post! On the one hand I am heartened to see that us proponents of “Real Food” are finally getting a look see by “Big Food” however, I am loathe to see what their interpretations of “Real Food” will be. I think I will stick with making things from scratch, where I can pronounce and easily identify all the ingredients!

  12. Melissa Carter Medaugh via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:02 am

    Big marketing scheme that’s going to work :(

  13. Seth Braun via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:07 am

    I did consulting with some of these companies on their developments. I think it is good. Not everyone is ready for the deep commitment of sprouting and dehydrating seeds, searching out raw dairy, or getting a CSA share… but it is a developmental step. The corporate entity is following what consumers want.

  14. Kathryn Richards via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:09 am

    It is still processed foods – and they have too much stuff not good for us in them. :-(

  15. Dana Seilhan via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:09 am

    I think it’s a load of crap, this campaign of theirs. I just got done shopping around at make-your-own-supplements websites last night (as in custom-made for yourself for personal use) and it amazes me how many cheap ingredients they use that aren’t even the most effective: folic acid instead of real folate, cyanocobalamin for B12 instead of methylcobalamin, beta carotene for the A but no retinol, etc. These big food companies are just going to do the same thing, pick the cheapest possible path they can walk to arrive at something that appears to be healthy but that will line their pockets with the highest payout. And probably with fake vitamins added in.

  16. Amanda Kate Donovan via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:09 am

    point well taken, seth.

  17. Patty Goodman via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:11 am

    Sheep in wolve’s clothing…they are losing money, that’s the ONLY initiative to trying to make anything “natural”…of course, for the smart consumer, they already know this crap is full of GMO’s, preservatives, chemicals, etc. and will stay away from it like the plague!

  18. Joseph Rice via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:16 am

    as the article states, if it’s manufactured to last days and weeks, it’s not food. anything in a package is not food. i have some store bought bread still sitting in my bread box after 2 months that is still “fresh” and non-moldy. scary stuff.

  19. Terri Talarek King via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:16 am

    I’m not the least bit surprised, but I am still ever vigilant. Whole, pure foods for me, that’s it.

  20. Food Renegade via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:19 am

    @joseph — That IS scary!

  21. Joseph Rice via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:20 am

    i have since learned how to bake my own bread. :-)

  22. Jeni Baron via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:22 am

    It has it’s place. Some of us have too many stresses in our lives to be all the way “there” yet.

  23. Food Renegade via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:22 am

    @Seth — It is a step in the right direction, and I may even buy some of these new products from time to time as the need arises. And when I do, I’ll be thankful that I’m purchasing a “lesser evil”. But it still doesn’t change the fact that for these guys, it’s still all about profits. And THAT means that cheap ingredients, short cuts, and misleading labeling will be the NORM rather than the exception.

  24. Patty Goodman via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:23 am

    Joseph, I have been baking my own bread, too and it’s so good (all ingredients are organic), it goes like crazy in my house! LOL

  25. Dana Seilhan via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:29 am

    I can’t imagine a *need* will ever arise for this stuff. I guess I could see myself buying something like this (depending on what it is) if my daughter wants a treat, MAYBE, but that’s it. I have lived without these products all my life and I can sure live without them now.

    Also, just because consumers think they want something doesn’t make it virtuous to provide it. Obviously, quite a few consumers want meth, and you see what *that’s* done for *them.* The market is not God, and should not be treated accordingly, especially when these big food conglomerates and Big Pharma *create* a lot of that desire in the first place with well-targeted advertising.

    (And please do not tell me that advertising doesn’t make anyone want anything. If it didn’t work as a strong influence, corporations wouldn’t shell out billions and billions annually for it.)

  26. Dana Seilhan via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:29 am

    And, Laura? Something being vegan is NOT a selling point.

  27. Melissa Carter Medaugh via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:31 am

    Meechelle, I believe this is simply a step to appease consumers. There are no regulations regarding the extent of “healthy” a company’s product must be for them to market their product as such. @Jeni – I believe you fall within the majority of health-minded individuals :)

  28. Dana Seilhan via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:32 am

    Another thought: I know that WAPF adherents like to do all this kitchen food prep stuff to be healthy but honestly, while it is useful for producing healthy food, it’s not *necessary.* It’s possible for someone to, say, learn how to make kefir and then just eat meat and fruit and veggies and get by just fine. Nobody really needs the kitchen laboratory, it just happens to be useful.

    Just deciding to choose butter over margarine, even if it is CAFO butter, makes a big big difference, as I have seen in my own life.

  29. Angie B
    April 15, 2011 | 10:32 am

    The only positive I see is that my teenager will have ever so slightly better options when he’s at a convenience store with friends in the future. My children love all of my homemade snacks, etc (well, most anyway) they do want to have choices “like their friends.” Other than that I think it’s laughable – the majority of people make their food choices based on TV commercials (i.e. “corn sugar” is the same as cane sugar and in moderation is fine…GAG!) and until we can get people off the couch to use their own brains & listen to their bodies we’re doomed!

  30. Sandra Fonseca via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:34 am

    love the article :)

  31. Good Life Menus via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:36 am

    The thing is, a lot of what is already sold in health food stores is actually highly-processed junk food! Organic mac n’ cheese is still mostly carbs, with overheated, denatured milk proteins. Organic chips are still mostly carbs, very likely with franken-oils like canola. Organic candy will still rot your teeth. Maybe that’s where some people need to start, though. Trade the Doritos for a more organic version, before learning about crispy nuts and then learning how to eat so that you don’t need to snack very often and the crispy nuts become the “emergency stash” for errand days.

  32. Tammy Lee Rodriguez via Facebook
    April 15, 2011 | 10:40 am

    baby steps are good… but not always good for you

  33. Michael
    April 15, 2011 | 11:05 am

    In the end, the lies in the hands of the consumer. The market ultimately supplies what is demanded, and if the majority of folks don’t buy this stuff, it simply won’t be available. That is why educating the masses is the primary key to winning this battle.

  34. Farmer's City Wife
    April 15, 2011 | 11:13 am

    It’s interesting that the three companies you mentioned (Kraft, PepsiCo, Nestle) are the three mega-companies that are doing “flavor research” (to reduce sugar, reduce sodium and replace MSG) on a stem cell line from an aborted baby.

    The flavor enhancer from the Senomyx laboratory that they’re all using doesn’t have to be listed on the label, it’ll be listed under “artificial flavors.”

  35. Julie
    April 15, 2011 | 11:17 am

    So good to see so many comments about people cooking from scratch. It’s easy to feel like it’s few and far between who really do it even though that’s not the case! Also a note alot of bigger companies like doritos make chips and other products for trader joes and label. Of course they follow the trader Joe standard of no preservatives but its still heavily processed…

  36. MM
    April 15, 2011 | 7:24 pm

    The biggest reason I see for why the big food companies will never sell us “real food” is simply that there is no profit in it. Processed foods are so profitable, between the cheap, useless ingredients, the salt and cheap fats to make us crave them, and non-perishibility.
    I also agree with Good Life Menus about how health food stores are already full of organic junk food. Newman-O’s? Organic sodas? Not to mention all the soy in every “healthy” snack bar. I am not holding my breath for anything good to come from Pepsi and Nestle. I’ll just get my fresh veggies from my organic farmer neighbor and my eggs from the henhouse and my venison from the woods thankyouverymuch and they and their “healthy”convenience foods can go stuff it!

  37. CanCan
    April 15, 2011 | 10:25 pm

    It took me a while to grasp this, that everything sold at Whole Foods isn’t good for me. But now I’m viewing all packaged foods as “occasional treats” instead of “i’ll eat this all natural energy bar and its good for me.”

  38. Soli @ I Believe In Butter
    April 16, 2011 | 7:45 pm

    I’m just going to keep making the food myself. Kicked out a lot of prepackaed things in the last ten years and still check labels on anything I buy which has one.

  39. Jenna
    April 17, 2011 | 11:04 am

    I have to admit, I feel weird typing this, but… I’m starting to feel really lucky to have celiac! Having to avoid gluten means 90% of the items concerned in this push, no matter how “healthy” they make them, are still off the table for me. Being cheap… well, that get’s rid of the rest of the options, most of the time. I’ll stick to cooking from scratch, and 95% of the time. The other 5%? Well. That’s for choices that are apologetically UN-healthy – but fine as once in a while rare treats.

    I hate trying to legitimize my indulgences. Let me have my once a month chocolate bar – full fat, high sugar, swirl of tongue-tinglingly seawater salty caramel worked through… without telling me how many antioxidants, fiber, and “Super” foods some company is willing to shove into it. Makes eating my salads, my garlicy bok choy, and the rest of my real food diet much happier!

  40. So many companies are also trying to disguise their unhealthy foods into 100 calorie packets to keep their calories down while still eating junk food. They also put “trans fat free” but is it really or is it just the portion they are measuring is low enough to say free.

  41. Karen
    April 20, 2011 | 11:08 pm

    I’ll do exactly as I do now, let it sit on the store shelf. Aside from all the health concerns that they will surely try to override with label claims of “healthier” (than eating maybe asphalt) and “part of a good…” (as long as you add all the real food) and manipulating regulations so they can claim it is ____ – free because they’ve squeeked under the threshold, I cannot fathom why I should pay for a quasifood factory to do all the “washing, and the peeling and the cutting” just so I don’t have to. Of course, a certain percentage of the population considers convenience to be the most important feature of food, and others believe marketing claims like a kid believes in monsters under the bed.

    To me the washing, peeling and cutting is just a part of the process of being connected to what you eat. When I do those things, I can inspect each item individually and know the exact condition of what my family will eat. I do not have an allowable percentage of insect parts, hairs, decay, bits of metal or plastic, or other undesirable ingredients. If those things are in what I serve, it is my responsibility, period. I can’t say it was faulty equipment, or a disgruntled employee. It was me. Everyone knows it was me, and therefore I make sure it doesn’t happen. I remember my mother telling me about when she worked in a tomato processing plant and watched things like soggy bandaids heading down the assembly line into the ketchup vat. She was explaining why she could not bring herself to eat commercial tomato products. It revolted me enough that I make sure nothing like that ever happens in my kitchen either. I’m sure regulations have been considerably revised since then, but stuff still happens. Food recalls don’t seem to be declining.

  42. Primal Toad
    April 22, 2011 | 9:22 am

    “NEWSFLASH, Mr. Bulcke: IT’S NOT POSSIBLE. By definition, a packaged food that is cheap enough to be manufactured in bulk, durable enough to be shipped across the country or around the world, and stable enough to last for weeks, months, or even years on shelves IS NOT “NATURAL.”

    Pssssst: Kristen, you are forgetting about 1 food! Have you ever heard of Let’s Do Organic Shredded Coconut?! It costs me only 10 cents per 100 calories. I can eat a whole meal for under a buck! Not that I would but I am just making a point… Behind Costco Olive Oil, it is the cheapest food I eat! I eat a primal/paleo diet as you are well aware (I think). But, shredded coconut is the exception! ;)

    Coconut oil is the same way. But, this statement is true 99.99999999999% of the time.

    I just thought I would throw that in.

    Give me LOTS of veggies and meat. Butter too.

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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