When poachers turn gamekeepers
February 28th 2018, 15:34
Big Food corporations are increasingly buying out the top natural-food players
Only around 10 companies control the vast majority of food brands that line our supermarket shelves globally, including Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg's and Mars. The food they produce isn't real food, at least in terms of what we humans have evolved to eat. It's also not the food that most of us should be eating if we're to seriously consider how to sustain 9 billion people by 2050 on our desperately overcrowded planet.
The food this 10-company oligopoly produces is stuff that's generally highly processed (even if it's labeled 'whole grain') and rich in refined carbohydrates and vegetable fats. The majority of us eat highly processed snacks multiple times each day. They're low in nutrients and have often been exposed to very high temperatures, which denatures proteins, vitamins and other cofactors while creating toxic and carcinogenic byproducts. Bioactive, plant-derived molecules are few and far between, which can't be said of all the additives that lurk on the ingredient lists.
In short, this is the very food that's driving the chronic metabolic disease epidemic.
Many people accept this junk because it surrounds us; it's in every supermarket, convenience store and gas station. It's made by companies people have, strangely, come to trust, because so much of it triggers opioid receptors in our brain, giving us a sense of comfort. Our trust in these comfort foods is no different from the trust we show the medications prescribed by our doctors—despite them being the third biggest killers in the West, following heart disease and cancer.
The big question is: will this trend, which has been slowly eroding the availability of real food, continue? Let's remind ourselves that real food generally lacks a bar code, and includes whole, unprocessed vegetables, fruits and animal products, raised sustainably and naturally.
My sense is that something very important is happening, related to the choices a growing number of people are making to increasingly avoid products made by Big Food, Big Pharma and Big Biotech. Many WDDTY readers are part of this movement—it's a movement that's embedded in natural justice, natural health and the natural sciences.
A decade or two ago, it was easy for corporate interests to marginalize this natural health movement. It had little support outside of brown rice-eating hippies who could be ignored. Not any longer. The wellness industry, consistently one of the fastest growing sectors worldwide, is now worth an estimated $3.7 trillion—that's around three times greater than global sales of all pharmaceuticals.
A trend we're seeing is Big Food corporations buying out big players in the natural products sector. In September 2017, Unilever's buyout of Pukka Herbs was announced. Unilever is already the biggest tea company in the world, owning Lipton's and PG Tips. Could the Anglo-Dutch giant help transport Pukka—long supported by its customer base for its commitment to organics, Fairtrade, FairWild and sustainability—to a whole new level? Could it push out less ethical players? Could it 'green' the sector? Could its ethical standards and B-corp status become the new normal?
Unilever's track record, like that of pretty much any transnational, is far from squeaky clean. But could Unilever's sell-off of its long-standing margarine interests (including brands like Flora and Stork) earlier in 2017 signal the company's genuine interest in human health?
As for Nestlé, its recent buyout of Atrium Innovations seems at odds with Nestlé's history. Atrium is the holding company for, among others, one of the largest consumer brands of dietary supplements, Garden of Life, as well as the largest brand of practitioner-only products, Pure Encapsulations. Garden of Life products are characterized by natural, organically certified and GMO-free ingredients. Pure Encapsulations' are super clean, naturally therapeutic and hypoallergenic.
Nestlé, on the other hand, makes breakfast cereals from highly refined grains laced with sugar, like Cheerios and Shreddies. You could of course argue, somewhat facetiously, that kids growing up on this stuff are going to need some natural remedies if they're to survive healthily into old age.
There are many scenarios that could be used to describe these acquisitions. Are they intended to kill off the smaller innovators? Do they allow Big Food to profit by having one foot in each camp, bolstered by the added public goodwill toward the natural sector? Or is something more fundamental going on?
Could it just be that these Big Food corporations are buying out smaller companies because they feel their future is doomed unless they take on board the lessons of the smaller players? Smaller players that produce the quality foods and health products most of us actually want but can't always afford? Could combining resources make these products more affordable and accessible to a broader cross-section of society?
Time will ultimately tell, but this is the only scenario that makes any real long-term sense for most of us.